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ARS Home » News & Events » News Articles » Research News » 1998 » Dress Rehearsal: Researchers Pass “Bird Flu” Test

Veterinarian David Swayne.

Dress Rehearsal: Researchers Pass “Bird Flu” Test

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 boy’s 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' Southeast 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 frightening changes.

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,