Resurrecting the Spanish Flu is a Deadly Idea

Albert Gitchell walked into the history books on March 11, 1918, when he reported to the Fort Riley, Kansas, infirmary. Complaining of fever, sore throat and aches, he became Patient Zero of the deadliest pandemic in human history — the “Spanish” Flu.

In less than a year, the flu had traveled with American soldiers around the globe, killing anywhere between 30 to 50 million people and infecting millions more. At a time when total population was a roomy 1.8 billion men and women, the Spanish Flu — so named because the American Flu didn’t roll off the tongue well enough, apparently — claimed the lives of 2½% of the world. In the United States alone, more people died from this outbreak than in battle during the Civil War.

“This was the most deadly infectious disease in the history of mankind,” affirms Dr. Michael Katze, a University of Washington microbiologist.

What does Dr. Katze know about it? A lot, actually. In fact, he plans to resurrect the long-dead virus, inject it into monkeys and see if he can make it all happen again.

Genius, isn’t it?

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The Spanish Flu died out with its victims over 80 years ago. People, having common sense at the time, actually did what they could to stop a re-occurrence. Bodies were burned or buried, inoculations were given. Those living today are immune to it — so why bother bringing this plague back to life?

Katze and his colleagues are part of a government-funded study to try and unravel the mystery of the flu’s origins. They hope to use knowledge gleaned from their research to combat future epidemics and feel developing such agents will only help future generations.

That’s a wonderful mindset. Too bad there’s no need for such studies; any antidotes created were completely unnecessary until the Spanish Flu was resuscitated in the first place. “It simply does not make any scientific sense to create a new threat just to develop new countermeasures against it.” says Jan van Aken, a biologist with an organization that exposes biological weapons, the Sunshine Project. “Genetic characterization of influenza strains has important biomedical applications. But it is not justifiable to recreate this particularly dangerous eradicated strain that could wreak havoc if released, deliberately or accidentally.”

Indeed, there are only two benefits for moving ahead with such programs: biological weaponry and monetary gain.

Let’s face it; the flu is a pretty excellent biological weapon. Even on a smaller scale, it works its magic on hundreds of thousands of people every year. Symptoms are common — even the full-blown epidemic in the United States received little news attention. And it has the perfect deniability most targeted weapons systems lack.

Dr Jeffrey Taubenberger of the Institute of Pathology (wholly operated by the Air Force) in Washington, D.C., has been tinkering with the flu’s viral RNA since the mid-1990s. Once he isolated the flu from tissue preserved since 1918, he injected it into laboratory mice and watched them die with spectacular results.

So what do we think we’ll get from injecting monkeys with this stuff?

Pardon my cynicism, but do I really trust the University of Washington, under the aegis of the Air Force, to deliver tangible benefits of such tests to the taxpayers? Of course not.

All this research does is accentuate hypocrisy in action. Even if done solely for altruistic purposes, the end result of flu testing is basically the creation of a biological weapon, something far more potent than what the United States ran around blowing up other countries looking for.

“If Jeffery Taubenberger worked in a Chinese, Russian or Iranian laboratory, his work might well be seen as the ˜smoking gun’ of an offensive biowarfare program,” van Aken adds.

Or, as Nkrumah Steward puts it, “Dubya would’ve choked on another pretzel to have had this kind of intel on Saddam’s biological/chemical weapons program.”

I worry that an infected animal will either escape or cause the virus to mutate (such mutations are thought to be the origin of the Spanish and Hong Kong flus), releasing it into the population with no vaccination and essentially putting the world right where it was in 1918 — in the grips of a deadly plague.

“This project could create a new bug that infects someone in the lab who then walks out at the end of the day and, literally, kills tens of millions of people,” says Sunshine Project director Ed Hammond.

Sound unlikely? Think again. The containment regulations for studying influenza are surprisingly lax; Katze and his crew at UW will need hundreds of thousands of dollars in laboratory upgrades just to make their research even remotely secure.

This brings us to the money part of the scenario. It’s no secret that most pure scientists rely on grants to fund their efforts. UW received part of a $12.7 million grant for this work, a portion of which will go to upgrading their labs in such a way they are still substandard for the risk involved with working on the Spanish Flu.

Think about that. $12.7 million this year spent examining a dead disease to find ways to combat it. If that isn’t a colossal waste of cash, I don’t know what is. But pet projects need funding, and the government needs to continue pointlessly researching things best left behind. It’s not like they have schools to keep open, roads to pave or law enforcement to pay.

“This kind of research is creating a vicious circle, and could prompt a race by biodefense scientists to genetic engineer unthinkable diseases,” says Hammond. “What disease comes after influenza? Biodefense laboratories must not become self-fulfilling prophesy centers. The world does not need biodefense programs to create a ˜genetically engineered disease gap’.” Nor does it need programs that justify their existence by promoting the study of useless (and in this case detrimental) research.

Officials and scientists are warning another pandemic could happen at any time. Why? The only major pandemics in human history were the Bubonic Plague and the Spanish Flu. There’s no cycle to plague and death. If another super flu comes, it’ll be the direct result of a government plan gone horribly wrong (or right, depending on your view of the government). The Spanish Flu targeted people ages 20-40 and was sent around the world willfully by the American military; think that doesn’t sound like something engineered to murder?

The Stanford Virology Department states that after the Spanish Flu came and went, “People allowed for strict measures and loss of freedom” and “allowed the public health departments to easily step in and implement their restrictive measures.” In a world where the United States government is marshalling every resource it can to control the American people, don’t think they won’t resort to opening a vial in a laboratory or freeing a contagious chimp.

Hell, it happened in Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

Stop needless and dangerous viral research now, before the genie becomes uncorked from its bottle.