Dress Rehearsal: Researchers Pass Bird
By Jill Lee
December 10, 1998
In May 1997, a 3-year-old boy in Hong Kong died of the flu and the world
held its breath.
Soon, this tragedy would spark new scientific collaboration thousands of
miles away at a poultry research lab of the Agricultural Research Service,
USDA's chief scientific agency.
What was so disturbing about the boys death was that the culprit virus
had previously attacked only birds--poultry in particular. Why had the
bird flu changed hosts?
Understanding how and why influenza viruses mutate is critical to avoiding
disasters like the Spanish Influenza of the early 20th century, the greatest
pandemic since the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. In 1918 and 1919, the
Spanish flu killed nearly 22 million people in North America, Europe and Asia.
Similarly, Hong Kong and China have been starting points for world
pandemics. Fortunately, the 1997 bird flu known as H5N1 never came
close to causing a pandemic. But the episode became an important test of how
the world will respond to the next worldwide attack of avian influenza.
When the crisis hit in 1997, ARS scientists already had a working H5
influenza vaccine for birds. At ARS'
Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Ga., they had been studying a viral
strain called H5N2. It attacks only poultry but is related to H5N1, the Hong
Kong bird flu strain. Based on this work, the scientists and industry
cooperators provided the Hong Kong government with the poultry vaccine.
The ARS scientists also provided the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention with a temporary research facility. They
worked extensively with CDC to identify the virus and understand its
This story of scientific cooperation is featured in the December Agricultural Research magazine.
The story is also on the World Wide Web at:
Scientific contact: David
Swayne, ARS Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory, Athens, Ga., phone (706)
546-3433, fax (706) 546-3161, email@example.com