October 23, 2005

Avian Flu is Lethal and Spreading. Recipe on Page 24.

The first Caplan & McGee column for the Times Union and Hearst Newspapers, on publishing the genetic code for a lethal virus, is out today.
Avian flu is much in the news these days. And it should be. This is one nasty little critter. Why then would a recipe for how to make a nasty version of it appear in a leading scientific journal where anyone, including some of our worst enemies, can find it?

How bad is the current version of avian flu now racing toward us from Asia and Europe? Compare the impact of the avian flu on your lungs to the regular old strain of flu that appears around this time of year -- it takes your breath away.


Avian flu releases 50 times as many infectious particles in the human lung as does an ordinary flu virus. If you wait four days, there are 35,000 times as many virus bits in a mouse lung infected with avian flu than are present in good old normal but nasty flu. In mice, 100 percent are dead a week after infection compared with a few deaths from other flu viruses.

When influenza first struck globally in 1918, it killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. Pandemic avian flu will probably kill just as many people, if not more.

Even worse, the existing flu vaccine does not protect against avian flu. Prescription medicines like Tamiflu may not do much if you do get infected, and a naturally occurring strain of avian flu resistant to Tamiflu has already been discovered. About the best you can hope for is not to get infected, which may not be an easy thing to do at a time when modern air travel means someone can be infected in Romania, Thailand or Indonesia on a Monday and be standing next you on a street corner by Tuesday.

Given this grim picture, you might imagine that the last thing scientists would try to do is to create this, or a similarly lethal bug in the lab. You would be wrong. A team of scientists recently announced in Science magazine they had re-created an artificial version of the original pandemic flu virus.
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