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Ira Flatow on Science: Avian Flu Epidemic Fears


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Scientists have succeeded in recreating the deadly Spanish Flu from 1918 that killed 50 million people worldwide, and they found out that it was originally a bird flu similar to the one that's killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia already and could threaten the rest of the world if it starts to spread easily among people and becomes very virulent. The research appears in the journals Nature and Science. Here with more is Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Ira, how did scientists resurrect this virus? There's a story there.

IRA FLATOW (Host, "Science Friday"): Yeah, there's a real story here. They used tissue samples from victims infected with the virus. They found tissue samples in a jar from a couple of soldiers. And really more interestingly, they then went--one of the scientists went to the frozen tundra of Alaska and dug up the body of a woman who was basically preserved--still preserved in the permafrost and took out a tissue sample from her lungs there. And then they sequenced the genetic code of the virus and basically recreated the virus. And in doing so they made two important discoveries. One was that key discovery that you mentioned, that the virus is directly descended from a bird flu and jumped into the human population and became virulent there. And, two, they discovered that there were key mutations in the virus' genes that allowed it to become so deadly to people. I mean, normally a flu virus doesn't kill you; it makes you pretty sick. But they found the key mutations in the genes here that drove the virus deeply into the lungs of people and actually made it so virulent.

CHADWICK: I've been following this bird flu story kind of off and on, as I think many people have. It hasn't seemed to be that much of a threat. But this new news really has me thinking, `Boy, maybe this is really--really is going to be something.'

FLATOW: Well, you know, it's also scared a lot of Washington, which has now just about woken up to the threat of the bird flu. President Bush just had a news conference this week. He said that, you know, we should start paying attention to this virus. Even though his own government scientists, people in his own administration, have been talking about it for years--the press has been talking about it for years--only this Tuesday did the president talk about it in his news conference and put it on the front burner.

And interesting--he said, `You know, we may have to call out the military. It may be necessary if this virus spreads into a pandemic and comes to the United States.' We don't really have a vaccine that can protect everybody from it, so health officials know that the first line of defense is to quarantine people. So it if does spread, how are we going to control a quarantine? How are you going to stop people from normally--you know, they're not used to that in this country. How do we stop them from moving around? And the only way, maybe: to call out the military to act as, you know, the agents of quarantine.

CHADWICK: The thing I wonder about, though, is does this new information lend more immediacy to the threat of this virus now?

FLATOW: Well, absolutely, because now you can see it just shows you how deadly these strains of bird flu might become if they do mutate and are able to spread into people. Right now they can just spread from birds to people, but if they mutate and combine with other viruses that people spread amongst themselves, then that's what will cause this pandemic. The good news so far is that the Southeast Asian flu has not mutated to become virulent in people, and it shows some, but not all, of the mutations that were present in the 1918 flu. So scientists will now be able to study and watch the bird flu viruses and see how they mutate and will they follow along the lines of the 1918 flu pandemic.

CHADWICK: And does what they've learned so far--is that going to help them--are there sort of sign posts that they can say, `Uh-oh, things are getting worse'?

FLATOW: Yeah, they can watch how this progresses and look at the mutations and say, `You know, maybe this is something that we--you know, we'll be able to study and learn and figure out in advance when this things becomes dangerous.'

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday" on NPR and regular Thursday guest on DAY TO DAY.

Ira, thanks again.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: And you can learn more about how this new avian flu virus might spread. There is good news and there is bad news. Go to our Web site, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ira Flatow
Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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