WASHINGTON, March 20 -- Military scientists have for the first time found preserved remnants of the Spanish flu virus that killed at least 20 million people worldwide in 1918. Researchers at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology announced today (Thursday) they hope to use the traces to learn how to spot a killer strain of flu.
The researchers report in the journal Science they have extracted bits of virus from old autopsy samples of lung tissue from soldiers who died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Ann Reid, one of the researchers, says the analysis so far adds weight to the theory that Spanish flu jumped from swine to humans. A competing theory, that the killer flu virus moved directly to humans from birds, now seems less likely. Reid and colleagues have so far not found genetic material that would explain why the Spanish flu was so deadly. Reid says, 'We didn't uncover a smoking gun,' but she points out the team has so far analyzed less than 5 percent of the genome. She says that other flu strains have jumped from swine to people at least three times since the 1918 epidemic -- the 1957 Asian flu, the 1968 Hong Kong flu and an isolated outbreak in 1976. None of these proved as dangerous as the 1918 strain, but Reid does not offer much comfort about the risk of another deadly swine flu. 'I can't see any reason it wouldn't happen again,' she says. ---NEWLN:Copyright 1997 by United Press International.NEWLN:All rights reserved.NEWLN:---