(NaturalNews) There is a famous picture from 1918, during which time the U.S. (and the world) was under assault from a flu pandemic. It shows row after row of bedridden soldiers, and it resembles an optical illusion, like a double-mirror effect. It is a stirring image to accompany world-changing events that began in January 1918 and quickly engulfed the planet.
As noted by The Washington Post, there is little about the Spanish flu -- a virus that ultimately affected one-third of all people on Earth and which would go on to kill some 50 million people -- that makes sense. Most influenza outbreaks tend to only kill the weakest among us -- the young, elderly and the infirm. But the Spanish flu, which was called the "greatest medical holocaust in history," targeted and killed healthy adults. Even now, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, "its origins remain puzzling." The study called it "the mother of all pandemics" (that study is here [PDF]).
"75 years of research had failed to answer a most basic question about the 1918 pandemic: why was it so fatal?" the study stated.
Famous last words
The Post further reported:
The unknowns of this flu virus and others have divided the scientific community. Some researchers think fatal strains should be re-created for analysis. Others think such an endeavor couldn't be more dangerous. What if something goes wrong? What if an experiment accidentally unleashes a modern pandemic?
The defenders of such research parry: What if an epidemic happens naturally and we find ourselves unprepared?
It is an international debate, and at the center of it, the Post reports, is a man named Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He studies the influenza virus as well as Ebola, and recently he -- along with an international team of scientists -- published a study in Cell Host & Microbe which said that they had created a life-threatening virus that is only 3 percent different from the 1918 Spanish flu, a disease that many scientists believe killed more people than Black Death.
The question is, really, why would they do that?
According to Kawaoka's study, the "contemporary avian influenza virus... may have pandemic potential." With that in mind, researchers accomplished the creation of the new virus using reverse genetics. "They stitched together extant bird flu genes to spawn this single new virus that could spread from animal to animal in water droplets," the Post reported.
The team said its stated objective was to "assess the risk of [the] emergence of a pandemic influenza virus" with very similar elements to the one that killed 50 million in 1918. "Despite having conquered many infectious diseases, we continue to face a threat from novel, previously unrecognized infectious diseases," Kawaoka wrote.
In an email to the paper, he added that "these findings have real world applications."
'What the F are you doing?'
That said, other scientists are buying into this.
"The work they are doing is absolutely crazy," said Lord May, the United Kingdom's former chief science adviser, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper. "The whole thing is exceedingly dangerous. Yes, there is a danger, but it's not arising from the viruses out there in the animals, it's arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people."
Additional reporting from the Post:
A virologist at the renowned Pasteur Institute in Paris was similarly fretful. "It's madness, folly," Simon Wain-Hobson explained to the Guardian. "It shows profound lack of respect for the collective decision-making process we've always shown in fighting infections. If society, the intelligent lay-person, understood what was going on, they would say, 'What the F are you doing?'"
Kawaoka claims he is merely trying to alert people to how easy it is for another pandemic to occur. He added that the labs he works with have top-notch security personnel and that the critical researchers "do not understand how highly regulated this work is."
That sounds an awful lot like "famous last words."