Thursday, January 25, 2007

Drowning On Your Own Blood

Recreating The 1918 Bird Flu Virus That Killed 60 Million People Reveals Ways To Fight Our Future Pandemic

After numerous books and movies, and television shows, depicting the aftermath of a letahl virus escaping from a bioresearch lab, it must be near impossible for scientists and researchers to to not think about, and perhaps joke about, how they would feel if the lehal virus they were working on somehow escaped from their lab.

I don't mean to be flippant about the importance of such research, or killer viruses, but many of these researchers and scientists must have read some of the fiction, such as Stephen King's 'The Stand' and watched some of the movies that depict such scenarios, if only to debunk them.

"Look at that. We'd never do that in our lab. Did they actually have someone who knows what they're doing to advise on making that lab scene authentic?"

I only raise this because it was exactly the first thing that crossed my mind when I read the following stories, excerpted below.

Because the researchers in the story aren't just working on any one of the numerous lethal viruses and baterium that fill research labs around the world today.

They had recreated The Big One. .The 1918-1919 Bird Flu pandemic virus, otherwise known as Spanish Flu, which killed 40 to 60 million people around the world in less than nine months.

Consider that World War 1 lasted for four years, had battles where 20,000 men died in one morning, and less people died during that War then died the year after it was over.

What these researchers witnessed must have chilled them to the bone. The full fury of human history's most lethal virus, and it was under their control.

So just how tight is that lab security anyway?

From the BBC :

Scientists who recreated "Spanish flu" - the 1918 virus which killed up to 50m people - have witnessed its remarkable killing power first hand.

The lungs of infected monkeys were destroyed in just days as their immune systems went into overdrive after a Canadian laboratory rebuilt the virus.

...the results were startling. Symptoms appeared within 24 hours of exposure to the virus, and the subsequent destruction of lung tissue was so widespread that, had the monkeys not been killed a few days later, they would literally have drowned in their own blood.

The results match those seen when mice were infected in an earlier study and are very similar to those described in human patients at the time the virus was at its height.

Darwyn Kobasa, a research scientist with the Public Health Agency of Canada, and lead author of the research, defended the decision to recreate one of the most dangerous viruses in history.

He said: "This research provides an important piece in the puzzle of the 1918 virus, helping us to better understand influenza viruses and their potential to cause pandemics."

However, it is not the virus that is directly causing the damage to the lungs - it is the body's own response to infection.

Immune system proteins that can damage infected tissue were found at much higher levels following H1N1 infection compared with other viral infections.

Analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW) revealed that a key component of the immune system, a gene called RIG-1 appeared to be involved.

Levels of the protein produced by the gene were lower in tissue infected with the 1918 virus, suggesting it had a method of switching it off, causing immune defences to run wild.

This ability to alter the body's immune response is shared with the most recent candidate for mutation into a pandemic strain, the H5N1 avian flu.

Experts are worried that if the virus changes so that it can infect humans easily, it could again be far more lethal than normal seasonal flu.

Dr Ronald Cutler, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of East London, said: "Knowing how that over stimulation takes place could lead to the development of new methods to treat these diseases so we are better prepared for any future pandemic."

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