Deadliest bug is coming back to life

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The Independent Online
SCIENTISTS PLAN to recreate the influenza virus that killed more than 20 million people in 1918 in a dramatic experiment to bring back life from the dead.

Fragments of genetic material extracted from the bodies of victims of the global epidemic will be used to "resurrect" living viruses for use in research.

The scientists emphasise that it would be done in a laboratory with the highest containment classification because of the potential danger to the public.

They hope that by re-building the virus from scratch, and allowing it to infect human cells cultured in the laboratory, they will understand what made the agent so lethal and so learn how to prevent future flu epidemics from becoming so deadly. Between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide died in the outbreak of "Spanish flu", which attacked both the young and the old and became the largest single epidemic of infectious disease in recorded history.

In recent years scientists have searched tissue bank archives and permafrost burial grounds for victims whose tissues may harbour traces of the virus.

However, although they have managed to extract fragments of genetic material, they have failed to extract whole viruses, which has led them to the idea of using the fragments to rebuild an entire genetic sequence - or genome - of the 1918 strain.

Britain is likely to become the designated site for making the virus because of its internationally recognised expertise in influenza virology and because of the involvement of British scientists in extracting the flu genes from the frozen corpses.

The National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, north London, where scientists first isolated the influenza virus more than 60 years ago, is likely to become the authorised centre for making the 1918 strain.

The institute is one of only four civilian research centres in the country with a high-security laboratory - classed as category 4 containment - which is a legal prerequisite for handling the most contagious diseases.

Rod Daniels, a senior scientist at the institute, who is working on the project to extract viral genes from the bodies of four coalminers buried on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen in 1918, confirmed that the fragments being recovered will be used to construct the entire genetic code of the virus.

Once the scientists have completed the code, which is expected to be within two years, they will use a technique developed in America to reconstitute a living influenza virus from the information embedded in the 1918 genome.

"Through having the virus we would truly be able to answer the question as to what made it so lethal," Dr Daniels said. "We have made predictions about lethality but without physically having the virus we cannot test our predictions."

Although the project is still preliminary, there is theoretically nothing to stop the scientists from extracting enough genetic material from the long-dead fragments to make whole viruses, said John Oxford, professor of virology at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine, who is leading the study.

"The holy grail of influenza virology is to get hold of the 1918 virus," he said. "We can get the virus's genome, fair enough, but if we can get the virus itself we will have so much more information."

A second team of scientists in America has already sequenced three of the eight influenza genes from preserved tissues. Professor Oxford said it was inevitable that a full genetic sequence would be produced. "We have no doubt about it. It's just a question of how long it's going to take."