Did leak from a laboratory cause swine flu pandemic?

Same strain of influenza was released by accident three decades ago

It has swept across the world killing at least 300 people and infecting thousands more. Yet the swine flu pandemic might not have happened had it not been for the accidental release of the same strain of influenza virus from a research laboratory in the late 1970s, according to a new study.

Scientists investigating the genetic make-up of flu viruses have concluded there is a high probability that the H1N1 strain of influenza "A" behind the current pandemic might never have been re-introduced into the human population were it not for an accidental leak from a laboratory working on the same strain in 1977.

Yesterday, the Department of Health announced a further surge in the number of cases in Britain with another 1,604 confirmed over the weekend, and the death of a girl in Birmingham with underlying medical complications; the third death in Britain from swine flu-related problems.

Almost 6,000 Britons have now been infected with the influenza "A" (H1N1) strain of swine flu. But two medical researchers believe that this strain of the virus had been extinct in the human population for more than 20 years until it was unwittingly reintroduced by scientists working in a research lab somewhere in the world, leading to a pandemic in 1977 that began in Russia and China.

"Careful study of the genetic origin of the [1977] virus showed that it was closely related to a 1950 strain, but dissimilar to influenza 'A' (H1N1) strains from both 1947 and 1957. This finding suggested that the 1977 outbreak strain had been preserved since 1950. The re-emergence was probably an accidental release from a laboratory source," according to the study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Shanta Zimmer and Donald Burke from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania said that influenza "A" (H1N1) disappeared completely from humans after a pandemic of another strain of flu in 1957. H1N1 was not detected in annual surveillance until an outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in January 1976 at a US Army base in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

This outbreak affected 230 military personnel, killing one person, but it was successfully contained and was almost certainly caused by the direct transmission of swine flu from pigs. Nevertheless, the global anxiety caused by the Fort Dix outbreak led to a surge in research into H1N1 around the world, with experiments on frozen samples of the virus stored in labs since the 1950s, Dr Zimmer said.

"I would imagine that most labs researching into influenza would have had the 1950s strain. We cannot actually pinpoint which lab had it or accidentally released it, but the re-emergence of H1N1 in 1977 made it potentially a man-made pandemic," she said.

"It's a reminder that we need to be continually vigilant in terms of laboratory procedures. The identical virus in the current pandemic would not have occurred because a component of it comes from the H1N1 strain of 1977 – but it doesn't mean to say that we wouldn't have had another one causing a pandemic," she added.

One of the most likely routes for the release of the 1950s virus is that laboratory workers became infected accidentally and then infected families and friends, Dr Zimmer explained. After the 1977 pandemic, the H1N1 strain of flu re-appeared annually as seasonal flu but this year it underwent a radical genetic change to become another pandemic strain.

Professor John Oxford of the Royal London Hospital said that the accidental release of the 1950s strain of H1N1 in 1977 is entirely plausible, but it may have been a good thing as it would have given many older people alive today some measure of immunity to the current pandemic. "We can look upon it now as a stroke of good luck," he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect