Public Release: 

Scientists describe how 1918 influenza virus sample was exhumed in Alaska

Finding critical to future pandemic planning

NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

WHAT: The effort to find preserved samples of the 1918 influenza virus has been a pursuit of both historical and medical importance. The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most devastating single disease outbreak in modern history, and examining the virus that caused it may help prepare for, and possibly prevent, future pandemics. When the complete sequence of the 1918 virus was published in 2005, it represented a watershed event for influenza researchers worldwide.

In an article in the journal Antiviral Therapy, scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, narrate the story of how scientists discovered samples of the 1918 strain in fixed autopsy tissues and in the body of a woman buried in the Alaskan permafrost. The article places this discovery in the context of decades of research into the cause of pandemic influenza, and the authors detail the strange convergence of events that allowed them to recover and sequence the virus in the first place. Its genetic material is so fragile that it should not have survived for days, let alone decades.

In a mass grave in a remote Inuit village near the town of Brevig Mission, a large Inuit woman lay buried under more than six feet of ice and dirt for more than 75 years. The permafrost plus the woman's ample fat stores kept the virus in her lungs so well preserved that when a team of scientists exhumed her body in the late 1990s, they could recover enough viral RNA to sequence the 1918 strain in its entirety. This remarkable good fortune enabled these scientists to open a window onto a past pandemic--and perhaps gain a foothold for preventing a future one.

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ARTICLE: "Discovery and characterization of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus in historical context," by J Taubenberger, J Hultin and D Morens. "Spotlight on Respiratory Viruses" issue of Antiviral Therapy 12:581-591 (2007). Article available at http://www.intmedpress.com.

SPOKESPERSONS: Jeffery K. Taubenberger, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator in the NIAID Laboratory of Infectious Diseases; and David M. Morens, M.D., a medical epidemiologist at NIAID.

CONTACT: To schedule interviews, contact Jason Bardi in the NIAID News and Public Information Branch, (301) 402-1663, jbardi@niaid.nih.gov.

Visit www.PandemicFlu.gov for one-stop access to U.S. Government information on avian and pandemic flu.

NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria and illness from potential agents of bioterrorism. NIAID also supports research on basic immunology, transplantation and immune-related disorders, including autoimmune diseases, asthma and allergies.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)--The Nation's Medical Research Agency--includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.

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