The new twist on bird flu link -
November 8, 2005
Hazard in Hunt for New Flu: Looking for Bugs in All the Wrong Places
By GINA KOLATA
Science moves in mysterious ways, and sometimes what seems like the end of the story is really just the beginning. Or, at least, that is what some researchers are thinking as they scratch their heads over the weird genetic sequence of the 1918 flu virus.
Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, a molecular pathologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Technology who led the research team that reconstructed the long-extinct virus, said that a few things seemed clear.
The 1918 virus appears to be a bird flu virus. But if it is from a bird, it is not a bird anyone has studied before. It is not like the A(H5N1) strain of bird flus in Asia, which has sickened at least 116 people, and killed 60. It is not like the influenza viruses that infect fowl in North America.
Yet many researchers believe that the 1918 virus, which caused the worst infectious disease epidemic in human history, is a bird flu virus. And if so, it is the only one that has ever been known to cause a human pandemic.
That, Dr. Taubenberger said, gives rise to a question. Are scientists looking for the next pandemic flu virus in all the wrong places? Is there a bird that no one ever thought about that harbors the next 1918-like flu? And if so, what bird is it, and where does it live?
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Despite that, and the fact that those viruses have been circulating in China more than a dozen years, almost no human-to-human spread has occurred. "The virus has been around for more than a dozen years, but it hasn't jumped into the human population," Dr. Palese said. "I don't think it has the capability of doing it."
Dr. Taubenberger said he could argue it either way.
"It's a nasty virus," he said. "It is highly virulent in domestic birds and wild birds. The fact that it has killed half the humans it has infected makes it of concern, and the fact that it shares some features with the 1918 virus makes it of concern.
"But the fact that it has circulated in Asia for years and hasn't caused a pandemic argues against it. Maybe there are some biological barriers we don't understand."
So where will the next pandemic come from? Dr. Taubenberger says he wonders if it may be from a bird no one has thought of, a bird with a flu virus that has the same funny coding of amino acids that he saw in the 1918 flu.
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