Home > Safety & Health, Science & Technology > Be very, very, VERY careful with that stuff, fellas…

Be very, very, VERY careful with that stuff, fellas…

January 17, 2007

Canadian scientists have recreated the 1918 flu virus from genetic material recovered from exhumed victims’ lungs.  Working in a maximum isolation lab, they’re trying to unravel why it was so deadly.

The 1918 flu killed something like fifty million people last time it was running around loose.  This was in the days before subway trains, elevators, and jet aircraft.

they reported that the results were startling. Symptoms appeared within 24 hours of exposure to the virus, and the subsequent destruction of lung tissue was so widespread that, had the monkeys not been put to sleep a few days later, they would literally have drowned in their own blood.

When scientists built the first atomic bomb, they seriously considered if it might ignite the atmosphere, and decided there was a “low risk” before proceeding.  High-energy physicists are trying to make tiny black holes in the laboratory to study ultra-gravitational physics.  They say there’s a “low risk” of any problems. 

All we can really do is trust them, I guess.  Though it did occur to me that we should loan Canada a small nuke; put it in the lab…

By the way most people don’t seem to know anything about the 1918 epidemic, including many “journalists”.  I remember one excited reporter saying that the 2005 Tsunami was “the worst natural disaster in history” having killed 115,000 people.  Was it even in the top five?

  1. January 18, 2007 at 07:48 | #1

    All we can really do is trust them, I guess.  Though it did occur to me that we should loan Canada a small nuke; put it in the lab…

    Maybe down at the core … with an autodestruct if the computer detects the disease has gotten loose … and an unmarried man to carry the disarming key

  2. January 18, 2007 at 08:40 | #2

    Damn, now I have to watch that movie again.

  3. January 18, 2007 at 09:29 | #3

    I’m hearing Blue Oyster Cult singing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” … and seeing the walkin’ dude’s boots strolling down a highway somewhere near Las Vegas. 

    Damn, now I’m gonna hafta read that book again.

  4. January 18, 2007 at 09:33 | #4

    Wow…in these days I don’t think it would be wise to leave stuff like that lying around.

    And, btw, how did this sucker last for near a hundred years?  I’m not sure I’d want that anyway above 6 feet under.

    —pete

  5. January 18, 2007 at 11:48 | #5

    The Indian Ocean tsunami happened December 26, 2004, but the effects are still around today.

  6. james old guy
    January 18, 2007 at 13:54 | #6

    There are some things so stupid it take really intellgent people to justify doing them. Any other disease’s we can dig up just to figure out what happened.

  7. January 18, 2007 at 14:53 | #7

    It isn’t just idle curiousity; they’re trying to get a leg up on the H5N1 virus before it acquires human transmissibility.  The virus itself didn’t survive in the ground but they were able to reconstruct it from genetic fragments.

    But even in high security labs, accidents do happen from a moment’s carelessness.

    I liked Andromeda Strain – good book (though not to be confused with science).  Think I’ll rent the movie.

  8. Jim Gwyn
    January 18, 2007 at 20:00 | #8

    According to:

    http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/disaster.html

    The 2004 Tsunami doesn’t even make the top ten since 1800.

    (I consider reports before 1800 to be less than reliable and I didn’t count famines as they are not strictly ~natural~ disasters. Else the count would have been even higher.)

  9. January 19, 2007 at 08:39 | #9

    ‘Scientists recreated’ scares the dickens out of me.  What ever happened to Scientists are close to curing or have found a cure for?  I think that would be a better pursuit.

  10. January 19, 2007 at 09:06 | #10

    What ever happened to Scientists are close to curing or have found a cure for?

    That’s what they’re trying to do by recreating the virus.  The better they understand it, the closer they are to finding a cure.

  11. zilch
    January 20, 2007 at 09:40 | #11

    Hmmm- what counts as a “natural disaster”?  I’d say that the Permian extinction, where about 95% of all genera died out, has gotta be way up there.  On the other hand, we wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t happened.  Same goes for the K/T event.

  12. January 20, 2007 at 09:58 | #12

    “Wow…in these days I don’t think it would be wise to leave stuff like that lying around.”

    Well, a Level 4 lab isn’t even close to leaving stuff “lying around”.  As DOF said, it’s a serious, valid effort to protect public health.  There is always a danger of accidents and other unwanted events with all such research.

  13. Abhilasha
    January 23, 2007 at 12:36 | #13

    All this reminds me of that startrek episode where a scientist did not have anything better to do and spent his entire time trying to see how deadly he could make this virus, till the point, it got out of control and then, picard has to transfer this deadly virus to another planet to find a cure ………………..

    Couldnt they use computers to simulate the virus and predict its behavior based on those simulations….

  14. January 24, 2007 at 15:40 | #14

    Unlike Star Trek, our computer simulations are fairly limited in what they can actually show.  Indeed, simulations are accurate to the degree that they can predict what a real life sample will do—the more outre the virus in question, the less reliable one’s simulation will be.

  15. Lucas
    January 29, 2007 at 22:15 | #15

    “And, btw, how did this sucker last for near a hundred years?  I’m not sure I’d want that anyway above 6 feet under.”

    If by “this sucker” you mean an intact virus, it definitely didn’t—the protein coat and genetic material should have been broken down past the point of contagiousness within a few days tops.  However, the genetic material broke down into smaller peices with random breakpoints.  After sequencing all the peices, one can use a computer to:
    (1) compare peices with known sequences of other influenza viruses to identify peices likely coming from the 1918 influenza (as opposed to lung tissue or other pathogens).
    (2) match commmon intersections in the sequences to peice together the whole genome.

    That was just to get the gene sequence—then they have to get that into a chicken egg cell in the right way to get it to start making new copies of a long-dead virus.

    Still kinda scary.

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