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Scientists Create Virus Similar to Devastating 1918 Spanish Flu

A Hong Kong official stands near bags of dead chickens killed in an effort to contain a 2014 avian influenza outbreak. Scientists have produced an avian influenza virus similar to the microbe behind the 1918 Spanish flu, according to a study published on Wednesday. A Hong Kong official stands near bags of dead chickens killed in an effort to contain a 2014 avian influenza outbreak. Scientists have produced an avian influenza virus similar to the microbe behind the 1918 Spanish flu, according to a study published on Wednesday. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

Scientists said they produced an influenza virus similar to an agent responsible for 50 million deaths in a 1918 outbreak, the Washington Post reports.

Microbiologists from around the world assembled a virus 97 percent identical to the pathogen behind the World War I-era Spanish flu, says a study published on Wednesday by the journal Cell Host & Microbe. The group was led by University of Wisconsin scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, whose previous research helped spark a worldwide debate in 2011 over the laboratory creation of viruses more dangerous than their natural counterparts.

Kawaoka said such experiments can aid in preparations for disease threats that might occur in nature, by providing "information for those making decisions about surveillance and pandemic preparedness."

He also dismissed long-running fears that the research could lead to an accidental or deliberate release of a biological agent altered to be more dangerous. Facilities housing such studies are highly protected, and detractors of the experiments "do not understand how highly regulated this work is," the scientist argued.

Harvard University epidemiology professor Marc Lipstich, though, said he fears that Kawaoka's latest study "signals a growing trend to make transmissible novel viruses willy-nilly, without strong public health rationale," the London Guardian reported.

"This is a risky activity, even in the safest labs. Scientists should not take such risks without strong evidence that the work could save lives, which this paper does not provide," he told the newspaper in comments published on Wednesday.

Robert May, a former top British science official, argued that the work of Kawaoka's team was "absolutely crazy,” according to the Post.

NTI Analysis

  • UNSCR 1540 Resource Collection

    May 23, 2014

    The UNSCR 1540 Resource Collection examines implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to implement measures aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring NBC weapons, related materials, and their means of delivery. It details implementation efforts in all of the regions and countries of the world to-date.

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