9 January 2009
Influenza or flu is a highly infectious viral disease; seasonal epidemics occur due to minor genetic variation in the viral particles that allow them to evade the human immune system. Occasionally, a human flu virus may acquire a whole new segment of genetic material from another flu virus, such as a strain that normally infects birds or pigs. A virus that can infect humans, but which is genetically very different from previous strains, can cause a pandemic (world-wide epidemic), because humans have no resistance to the new strain. Pandemic flu not only causes a massive increase in infections, but may also have severe effects in unexpected groups; whilst epidemic flu is generally only serious in the very old, very young, or ill, previous pandemics have caused high mortality in otherwise fit young adults.
Based on previous experience, a new flu pandemic is in many ways overdue: there have been pandemics in 1918, 1957 and 1968, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned that conditions “favouring the emergence of a pandemic virus are…well known, and are increasingly being met” (see WHO report) and that there is a significant risk of another pandemic within the next few years. This is obviously a major public health concern, and substantial research efforts are going into developing candidate vaccines and treatments, and systems to deliver them should the need arise.
A reassortant virus containing the 1918 viral RNA polymerase complex genes (PA, PB1, and PB2) and nucleoprotein (NP) gene showed virulence properties in the upper and lower respiratory tracts of ferrets that closely resembled those of wild-type 1918 virus. The authors conclude that their findings “strongly implicate the viral RNA polymerase complex as a major determinant of the pathogenicity of the 1918 pandemic virus”. The 1918 RNA polymerase complex may be involved in generally increased viral replication capacity, or in tissue-specific increased replication capacity; for example, modulating interactions with a cellular factor that is present in the lower respiratory tract