Scientists in a controversial experiment have created the virus blamed for the deadliest influenza epidemic in human history – the so-called Spanish Flu which is believed to have killed between 50 and 100 million people from 1918-1920.
In 1918 alone, 20 to 40 percent of the world’s population caught it.
The work is being done by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The work they are doing is absolutely crazy,” Lord May, the former chief scientific adviser to the British government, told The Guardian. “The whole thing is exceedingly dangerous. Yes, there is a danger, but it’s not arising from the viruses out there in the animals, it’s arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people.”
The work May condemned was the use of genetic engineering to create a new influenza virus that is almost identical to the one that caused tens of millions of deaths at the end of World War I. A team led by researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka combined genes from a number of different flu viruses into a new virus that is only 3 percent different from the 1918 virus.
Robert Kolter, professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, said the experiment is irresponsible.
“The scientists doing this work are so immersed in their own self-aggrandisement, they have become completely blind to the irresponsibility of their acts,” Kolter told The Independent. “Their arguments in favor of such work, i.e. increase ability for surveillance, remain as weak as ever.”
Simon Wain-Hobson of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said the scientists should be concerned that the virus will escape.
“The work doesn’t offer us much,” he told The Independent. “The risk of escape is small but non-zero. I do not see such benefits, so on balance we are worse off.”
One of the Deadliest Diseases in History
The Spanish Flu, also known as “La Grippe,” was a flu virus similar to the H1N1 influenza strain or bird flu. The virus probably originated in China during World War I and spread around the world in 1918 and 1919 as soldiers returned from the conflict.
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Some historians think the Spanish Flu may have killed as many as 100 million worldwide, nearly three times as many as died in World War I, in which 37 million people died.
The Spanish Flu deaths included 675,000 Americans. The number of worldwide deaths makes the epidemic worse than the Black Death in the Middle Ages.
The Spanish Flu was particularly destructive because it infected and killed healthy young people. Scientists believe that the virus died out after the epidemic. The common belief is that viruses like the Spanish Flu originate in wild birds and spread to humans.
Professor Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said creation of the virus was necessary to understand how to fight such viruses.
“We know studies like ours advance the field and help those responsible for making decisions about surveillance and pandemic preparedness [to] base decisions on scientific fact, rather than conjecture. Therefore our research provides important benefits that cannot be achieved by other means,” he told The Independent.
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