Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Its genome was sequenced last year, but mysteries remain concerning the bird flu virus of 1918 that killed millions

Jeffrey Taubenberger’s 9-year effort to recover DNA and sequence the genome of the “Spanish Flue” of 1918 originally struck some observers as a quixotic quest. When Taubenberger beat the odds last fall, it was a scientific triumph. It also looked as if it might help solve the mystery of how the virus jumped species and created a human pandemic. It may yet, but so far it hasn’t. Gina Kolata explains in the NYT that we still don’t have a clue.
Another abiding mystery is that neither the 1918 influenza pandemic nor any other human influenza pandemic began with a flu pandemic that killed birds. And, scientists add, if the 1918 pandemic had begun that way, it would have been noticed. Even if the deaths of wild birds went undetected, the deaths of domestic fowl would have been recorded.
Although it would be foolish to become complacent, it does bear repeating — whatever was going on with birds in 1918, they weren’t suffering from their own flu pandemic the way they are now.

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