ATLANTA (CBS Atlanta) — It’s been nearly a century since the Spanish flue outbreak killed over 50 million people worldwide.
Scientists are warning that a flu pandemic on the scale of 1918 is still possible, reports New Scientist.
A flu virus keeps its genes in eight separate pieces of RNA, called genetic elements. The virus constantly swaps these pieces with other viruses.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin examined a database of bird flu genes isolated from wildfowl. They found genetic elements very similar to those in the 1918 flu virus.
Most of the proteins they coded were different from the 1918 variation by only a few amino acids.
The scientists then created a virus in the lab that resembled the 1918 flu and tested it on ferrets, the animal most similar to humans when it comes to flu.
Their strain did not infect the ferrets, but the researchers found with a few modifications and mutations the virus could easily spread among and kill the ferrets.
Some of the mutations were manipulated by the scientists. But, alarmingly, some of the mutations occurred on their own as the virus infected the animals’ cells.
They warn health officials that it is possible for a bird flu virus to spontaneously mutate into something akin to the horrific 1918 outbreak.
The CDC and federal government recommend Americans get a flu vaccine every year.