Dr. Terrence Tumpey, who received his doctorate in basic medical sciences
at the USA College of Medicine in 1997, has recreated the Spanish Flu virus that killed millions in 1918. By doing so, he has greatly advanced the preparedness efforts for future pandemics.
Tumpey, now a senior microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, believes this research offers proof that the 1918 flu originated in birds and provides valuable insight into the current avian flu situation in Southeast Asia.
“By identifying the characteristics that made the 1918 influenza virus so harmful, we have information that will help us develop new vaccines and treatments,” said Tumpey. “Influenza viruses are constantly evolving, and that means our science needs to evolve if we want to protect as many people as possible from pandemic influenza.”
The 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 20-50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States. The pandemic’s most striking feature was its unusually high death rate among otherwise healthy people aged 15-34. During normal seasonal flu outbreaks, severe complications and death are most common among the elderly and young children.
This groundbreaking research helps unlock the mystery of the 1918 flu pandemic and is critically important in our efforts to prepare for pandemic influenza,” said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding. “We need to know much more about pandemic influenza viruses. Research such as this helps us understand what makes some influenza viruses more harmful than others. It also provides us information that may help us identify, early on, influenza viruses that could cause a pandemic.”
In reconstructing the 1918 influenza virus, researchers learned which genes were responsible for making the virus so harmful. This is an important advance for preparedness efforts because knowing which genes are responsible for causing severe illness helps scientists develop new drugs and vaccines (e.g., they can focus their research on those genes).
Prior to this study, which is published in the Oct. 7 issue of Science, flu experts had little knowledge of what made the 1918 pandemic so much more deadly than the 1957 and 1968 pandemics.