Big Day for Bird Flu News

Today brings news that a live, infectious strain of the 1918 flu has been reconstructed in the lab.  The press has responded smartly this time (New York Times, AP via Wired News, CNN, The New Scientist) -- with fairly decent reporting -- no doubt in part because President Bush addressed the situation in a press conference, suggesting that the U.S. military might be involved in managing a pandemic.  There is quite the political hullabaloo in Washington DC, too boot, with the New York Times reporting that in response to closed door briefing last week a Pentagon appropriations bill has been boosted by USD 3.9 Billion solely for dealing with the flu (it's unclear from the story whether that money is intended for use by the Pentagon or by the NIH).  Politicians, and political parties, are evidently trying to outdo one another in being out front on this issue, despite the fact that we are hopelessly behind.  No surprise there.

As far as the biology goes, for those who have been paying attention, or even just reading this blog, there isn't that much new in today's reports.  As related by the Times, papers in Science and Nature basically confirm at least part of the molecular detective story told by Oxford et al., namely that the 1918 flu jumped directly from birds to humans.  Thus, "The Swine Flu" is a misnomer for the disease caused by this particular bug.  There is no further progress on figuring out when and where the bug evolved, as far as I can tell.

The Nature paper, from Jeffrey Taubenberger's group, describes his work in extracting flu sequences from preserved lung tissue and from a corpse frozen in permafrost.  This paper is a bioinformatic comparison (i.e. no experiments) that characterizes the 1918 flu polymerase genes.  The Science article describes infecting mice with a reconstructed virus, which turned out to be considerably more lethal than expected.  The article will be out on 7 October.  I will write more when I've had a chance to carefully ready both papers.

The publication of the viral sequence, with accompanying descriptions of how to reconstruct live virus, obviously raise questions about safety.  Every story above mentions that the investigators and journal editors balanced the benefits and threats, and asked for a review from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), before going to press.  Fortunately, everyone came to a conclusion in favor of publishing.  Press reports, including one in Nature, give voice to critics of publishing the sequence and construction methods.  In particular, there are complaints that the 1918 strain could be reconstituted for use as a weapon or that it could simply escape back into the wild.  I am obviously not the only one not much convinced by these arguments.  While very few people alive today have been exposed to the 1918 strain, related strains are often included in annual flu vaccines.  So humans is no longer immune naive for that set of bugs.  As for the use of 1918 as a weapon, the reverse genetics required to produce a live RNA virus from DNA plasmids are decidedly non trivial at the time being.  No doubt, this process will get simpler, but this isn't something you are going to do in your garage.