Risk ought not prevent research into the 1918 flu

Research pushes back the frontiers of human knowledge

It may come as a surprise to some that one of the most feared infectious diseases happens to be influenza. The flu virus has a remarkable ability to mutate into more deadly forms and it is easily transmitted from one person to another through respiratory droplets carried in the air.

Indeed, one of the most notorious pandemics in history was the outbreak of Spanish flu at the end of the First World War. Somewhere in the region of 50 million people worldwide were estimated to have died of the viral infection.

When the frozen corpses of some of the victims of the 1918 pandemic were exhumed from the Arctic permafrost a decade or so ago, scientists managed to extract fragments of the virus and reconstruct its entire genome.

Now they have gone a stage further and rebuilt a near-copy of the 1918 influenza.

In the latest study, the scientists went on to infect laboratory ferrets (the only good animal model of human influenza) with the reconstructed virus and even tinkered with its genome to show that its virulence or infectiousness can be enhanced further.

This kind of research, known as “gain of function” studies, has already met with some disapproval by other scientists who are not convinced that it is completely safe from some kind of accidental or deliberate release. Their concerns led to a voluntary moratorium on the research. This has, however, since been lifted by the flu scientists, who are convinced that there are benefits from discovering what makes the influenza virus so dangerous.

They are taking a risk. An outbreak could be catastrophic, and every possible precaution must be taken. Moreover, the scientists themselves have a duty to further educate the public about what exactly it is they are trying to achieve. But this kind of research pushes back the frontiers of human knowledge and may, in later application, prove of great use to humankind. Risk ought not prevent it.