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Dangerous Accident in a Bird Flu Lab

Scientists are working hard to learn the secrets of bird flu?before it takes us by surprise. But the virus could enter the population from the scientists themselves, if we aren?t careful. For instance, a lab in Texas recently almost leaked the deadly bird flu virus out into the environment.

Last April, a researcher at a lab at the University of Texas in Austin who was doing experiments mixing human and bird flu viruses, has an accident involving a centrifuge that caused a cap to come off a test tube, which could have spilled a human flu virus which had been modified to carry a gene from H5N1 bird flu.

The lab was shut down and isolated and it was determined that none of the virus had leaked (or did it?) In New Scientist, Debora Mackenzie quotes Ed Hammond, head of a local watchdog group, as saying, "The University of Texas dodged a bullet."

Scientists are worried that bird flu will be an epidemic like the 1918 flu virus that killed 50 million people worldwide. They are still trying to figure out what it was about that particular virus that made it so lethal. Virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka has discovered how the 1918 virus?modern history's most savage influenza strain?unleashed an immune response that destroyed the lungs in a matter of days, leading to death. He says that his study "proves the 1918 virus was indeed different from all of the other flu viruses we know of."

By infecting monkeys with the virus, Kawaoka's team was able to show that the 1918 virus prompted a deadly respiratory infection that echoed historical accounts of how the disease claimed its victims. Infection with the virus prompted an immune response that seems to derail the body's typical reaction to viral infection and instead unleashes an attack by the immune system on the lungs. As immune cells attack the respiratory system, the lungs fill with fluid and victims, in essence, drown. This is an extreme example of the way the human immune system causes us pain and suffering as it fights off a virus.

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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