"Why was this so devastating an outbreak?" asked lead investigator Ian Wilson, D.Phil., a molecular biology professor and a member of The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at The Scripps Research Institute.
Seeking the answer led Wilson, Senior Scripps Research Associate James Stevens, Ph.D., Scripps Research Associate Adam Corper, and several colleagues, including Jeffery K. Taubenberger from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C. and Christopher F. Basler and Peter Palese of Mount Sinai Institute of Medicine in New York, to describe the structure of a protein called hemagglutinin from the 1918 flu virus. This "antigenic" surface protein is the first structure of this extinct virus to be solved.
Their research will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Science.
A Devastating Infection
Influenza is a common viral infection of the lungs that affects millions of people annually and is a leading cause of death in the United States, contributing to around 50,000 deaths per year. Influenza outbreaks like the one in 1918 occur when a virus adapted to birds jumps directly into humans or reassorts and infects another species, such as the pig, and then jumps into humans. Similar outbreaks occurred in 1957 and 1968.
The 1918 outbreak was remarkable not only because it caused such a large number of deaths-- 675,000 in the United States and up to 40 million worldwide-- but also because it inflicted such high mortality rates, reaching 70 percent in some communities.