Researchers have reconstructed the genetic sequencing of the 1918 influenza virus, responsible for a pandemic that killed over 50 million people across the globe in a time where travel was much more limited than today. In doing so, they have discovered that the viruses which caused influenza pandemics in 1957, 1968 and 2009 were all descended, in part, from the infamous Spanish flu virus of 1918. JK Taubenberger et al (2012) describe their findings in the current issue of mBio, published yesterday.
The research has advanced scientists’ understanding of influenza biology and yielded important information on how to prevent and control future pandemics.
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Studies showed that the 2009 pandemic virus had structural similarities with the 1918 virus and explained why younger people, who had never been exposed to the 1918 virus or its early descendants, were most vulnerable to infection by the 2009 influenza virus, commonly referred to at the time as swine flu. As a result, public health officials were able to target limited vaccine supplies to predominantly younger people, who needed vaccine protection most, rather than the elderly, who were at lower risk of infection in 2009, but are traditionally the most important target group for vaccination.
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The identification of parts of the physical structure of the Spanish flu virus also opens the door to developing a universal flu vaccine, as some parts of the virus are shared across different strains. This would mean that a vaccine could be developed which would remain effective for years, against many more viral strains than the three or four flu viruses which the current vaccines protect against, providing much better protection and requiring less frequent injections.
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Scientists have also been able to learn more about what changes a virus needs to evolve in order to make the jump from an animal host to a human host. This has led to more targeted surveillance of certain influenza viruses in animals that may be more likely to move to humans.
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More generally, the authors say that reconstruction of the 1918 influenza virus has furthered scientific understanding of how novel influenza viruses emerge and evolve. Additionally, study of the 1918 influenza virus has helped clarify the critical effects of the human immune system’s response to viral infection and the importance of bacterial co-infections that often follow the influenza infection. In sum, the authors write, learning more about the 1918 pandemic influenza virus has led to important insights that could help prevent or mitigate seasonal and pandemic influenza.
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Dr. Jeffery K. Taubenberger, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s lead author, is the section chief in the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a National Institutes of Health facility.
NIAID conducts and supports research at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide, to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses.
NIH is the United States’ medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases.
JK Taubenberger et al. Reconstruction of the 1918 influenza virus: Unexpected rewards from the past. mBio DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00201-12 (2012).
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