The Flu Hunters

When a mysterious and deadly flu virus struck Hong Kong last year, medical detectives from around the world, fearing a repeat of the 1918 epidemic that killed more than 20 million, sprang into action.

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Shortridge, in Hong Kong, asked Webster, in Memphis, if he could help him arrange to ship a sample of the deadly virus for in-depth analysis to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's high-security laboratory in Ames, Iowa. When the package arrived, it was sent to a P3+ containment laboratory--one notch below the P4 level required for studies of Ebola virus--where Dennis Senne inoculated the virus into chicken eggs and chickens to gauge its pathogenicity. It killed 10 out of 10 chickens; each died within one or two days.

Senne then subjected the virus to detailed genetic analysis, a process known as gene sequencing. On the H gene at a point called the cleavage site, he found a telltale mutation, the same kind of mutation found in other highly pathogenic avian viruses. Senne shipped his findings and samples of the virus to Webster, who analyzed its viral heritage. The virus, he discovered, had regions that were identical to portions of the avian virus that struck Pennsylvania in 1983.

The outbreak in Hong Kong was quickly contained. All birds on the three farms were destroyed. And that's where Webster and Shortridge left it. "At that point," Webster remembers, "it was merely interesting."


In March, even as the chickens were dying, a molecular pathologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, startled the flu research community with a paper in the prestigious journal Science in which his team claimed to have at least partly penetrated the fog surrounding the 1918 pandemic. The coincidence was striking: just as a new virus was emerging in Hong Kong, here was fresh news about the mother of all epidemics.

Taubenberger's work began not out of some great passion to plumb the mysteries of 1918 but rather a desire to showcase two of the Pathology Institute's crown jewels: its vast collection of tissue specimens gathered over the past century, and its new technique for extracting RNA from biological materials fixed in Formalin and paraffin. Even he, however, wondered if the institute's tissue repository, "the annex," would be able to locate such old specimens. He had never seen the place and pictured it as a forlorn vault like the vast warehouse in the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Taubenberger and colleague Ann Reid put in a request to the annex for tissue samples of three dozen soldiers who had died in the 1918 pandemic. They then settled in for what they assumed would be a long wait.

They assumed wrong. The repository, housed in a nondescript building 10 minutes away in Forest Glen, Md., is not the gloomy storehouse they imagined. A few seconds after receiving Taubenberger's request, the annex's robotic retrievers had located the laboratory slides associated with his cases, rising on quiet greased chains to retrieve them from the upper reaches of a 10-ft.-tall, room-length revolving carousel. A few days later, a collection of small brown lunch bags turned up at Taubenberger's office, each marked with a case number, each containing flecks of tissue taken from a young soldier killed by the flu nearly a century earlier, by doctors struggling to cope with a lethal epidemic they did not understand. For Taubenberger and Reid, it was a strangely haunting moment.

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