A team of scientists in Canada and the U.S. report that they have re-created the 1918 influenza virus and used it to infect Rhesus monkeys.
The 1918 flu, mistakenly called the Spanish flu, disappeared within a couple of years, so is it wise to recreate it? The scientists who did it and injected monkeys discovered it was a bird flu that jumped to humans. That’s important information. We have had recurrences of bird flu – in 1977 and again in 2009.
The 1918 flu first became apparent in Kansas City in military camps in April 1918, but the information was kept secret. When it appeared in Spain in May 1918, the officials talked openly about it, and it became known as the Spanish Flu.
The flu killed 17 to 100 million people worldwide. Five hundred million people caught it. It was the second deadliest pandemic in human history after the Black Death bubonic plague of 1346–1353.
Forbes reported, “About 20 years ago, a small team of researchers led by Jeffery Taubenberger and Ann Reid figured out how to sequence the genome of the 1918 flu. In a series of papers spread over six years, they described how they recovered pieces of the flu virus from human samples that had been frozen for nearly 100 years, including corpses buried in the permafrost of Siberia and Alaska. In 2005, they reported the complete sequence in the journal Nature. Their main discovery was that the 1918 flu had originally been bird flu, which jumped into humans sometime before 1918. Taubenberger and others, including Adolfo Garcia-Sastre at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, also re-constructed live viruses and tested them on mice that same year. Not surprisingly, the mice died.”
Two years later, in 2007, researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin infected seven macaques. The macaques became severely ill, and the scientists euthanized all of them.
Yoshiro Kawaoka and Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier are widely known for their gain-of-function research that aimed to give deadly bird flu the ability to infect mammals.
In a new paper, researchers at the Public Health Agency of Canada, the University of Manitoba, and Oregon Health & Science University re-created the 1918 flu virus again and infected 15 macaques. This time they used more realistic doses, and the macaques didn’t get so sick, suffering only “mild” or “moderate” disease. Maybe macaques “are not ideal for the development and testing of novel pandemic influenza-specific vaccines and therapies,” they concluded.
I’m not comfortable that they have the controls to keep this contained. It could also become a bioweapon, but there are even worse illnesses that are currently being investigated with gain-of-function. What do you think?