05 October 2005

Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

I'm all for scientific understanding, but this gives me the willies (from today's Wall Street Journal [subscription required]):
Two teams of scientists reported that they re-created the influenza virus that killed as many as 50 million people in 1918 and 1919.

. . . .

The findings by Dr. Taubenberger and his team of researchers, published in Nature, follow a nine-year effort to decode the 1918 strain by sequencing its eight genes. The research concluded that the pandemic flu outbreak was most likely caused by an avian virus. The scientists also discovered 10 mutations that distinguish the 1918 virus from avian bugs, suggesting changes that the virus made to adapt to a human host, they said. They also noted that some of those mutations are also present in the currently circulating H5N1 virus, suggesting it could make the jump to humans in a similarly rapid and alarming way.

In the second study, published in Science, scientists from the CDC and Mount Sinai took the decoded virus and re-created it, using a process known as reverse genetics. The virus they created, in a secure CDC lab, was "exceptionally virulent," quickly killing embryonated chicken eggs and mice, said Terence Tumpey, a senior scientist at the CDC who led the effort. The team also found that the 1918 bug had an unusual ability to penetrate cells that flu bugs don't usually reach deep in the lungs, providing some clues as to why its symptoms were so severe.

The article concludes that "[w]hile the research significantly advances scientists' understanding of the avian-flu threat, it also raises concerns about keeping the virus from escaping from the lab or into the hands of bioterrorists." Huh, you think? Congratulations to the entire team on its outstanding achievements; please understand if I don't want to shake your hands.

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