U.S. A Step Behind Bird Flu

Good news: scientists have not only reconstructed the genetic sequence of the 1918 flu virus, which killed as many as 50 million people, they've learned that it was a bird flu that jumped to humans who then passed it on to each other.

Bad news: there are a lot of similarities between the 1918 virus and the new flu that's killed millions of birds, and at least 60 of the 116 people who've gotten it as it's begun to march across Asia. It's those similarities that have driven this past week's alarming headlines, CBS News correspondent Martha Teichner reports.

"The world is obviously unprepared or inadequately prepared for the potential of a pandemic," says Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.

Leavitt was a speaker at an international conference on flu preparedness in Washington attended by 80 nations. Some of whom it seems are way ahead of us in stockpiling the antiviral drug Tamiflu. So if a pandemic is truly on the way, the United States won't have enough.

No doubt, recalling Hurricane Katrina the president was all over the flu issue at his news conference talking about quarantines.

And who best to be able to effect a quarantine: one option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move.

On Friday, President Bush met with drug company officials, urging them to speed up production of flu vaccine.

So why the urgency and why now?

"The lethal capacity of this virus is very, very high, so it's a deadly virus that humans have not been exposed to before. That's a very bad combination," says Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

"We're only missing one more piece before it becomes a pandemic and that is the ability to be transmitted from person to person as opposed to simply from birds or fowl to humans," Redlener explains.

Which is exactly what happened in the 1918 flu.

Half a million Americans died of it. Maybe 20,000 die in a normal flu season.

In WWI, more soldiers died of the flu than on the battlefield. Living together in close quarters, they were literally attacked in their beds. They got the sniffles one day and were often dead the next.

"People described military camps: they say the bodies were stacked up like cordwood," New York Times science writer Gina Kolata says.

Kolata wrote a book about the 1918 flu. "Never in the recorded history of the world has an infectious disease killed so many people in such a short time," Kolata says.

Most vulnerable were children under 15 and adults between the ages of 20 and 40. For every one person who died, something like 100 got sick.

We told you it was good news that scientists have managed to recreate the 1918 flu. Here's why:

"We can take these genes and sequence them," microbiologist Adolfo Garcia-Sastre says.

Using its genetic signature to clone the virus, Garcia-Sastre and his colleagues at Mt. Sinai school of Medicine in New York are on the verge of determining exactly how a virus mutates and turns deadly, triggering a pandemic.

"We'll be able to predict this type of events," Garcia-Sastre says. Garcia-Sastre added that his team hopes to predict not only when the virus might jump from bird to man and then man to man, but also the lethalness of the flu.

Researchers argue that any risk caused by recreating the virus is offset by what can be learned, but none of this would even be happening if it weren't for an amazing medical detective story.

"This process has been a nine-year effort from that first moment," Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger says.

Taubenberger, a molecular biologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington was the lead detective: the man who tracked down the 1918 flu virus and then mapped its genome.

"What we're doing is analyzing a virus right out of the lungs of people who died in the prime of their lives, soldiers who were just in their 20's when they died," Taubenberger explains.

Why soldiers? In a way, thanks to President Lincoln, he became interested in what soldiers were dying of. So, from that day to this, tissue samples have been collected for study. There are now five million little wax blocks and 30 million slides.

When we first met Dr. Taubenberger in 1999, he explained that he had thought, maybe, somewhere in this amazing archive, he could find a sample that contained the 1918 flu virus.

He found not one, but two.

Enter Dr. Johann Hultin, a retired pathologist from San Francisco. In 1951, he had tried and failed to extract the virus from flu victims frozen into the ground in Alaska. The technology simply wasn't sophisticated enough then, but when Hultin read about Taubenberger's discovery, he tried again.

This time he found the bodies decomposed. All except one.

"That was a great moment. Like that," Hultin snaps his finger, "I knew it."

The virus in the lung tissue matched the two soldiers', proving it was the 1918 flu.

"The long-term goal would be to apply this information in a way that ultimately might be able to prevent a pandemic from ever happening again," Taubenberger says.

But what if it does? A copy of a Bush administration plan for dealing with a flu pandemic was just leaked to the New York Times. It outlines a worst case scenario: 1.9 million Americans dead and 8.5 million hospitalized.

It talks about a domestic vaccine production capacity of 600 million doses within 6 months, more than 10 times the present capacity.

"There is an h5n1, an avian flu, bird flu vaccine. They first made a two million dose batch and now they're doing a 20 million dose batch," says Doris Bucher.

A far cry from 600 million. Bucher heads a lab at the New York Medical College that creates flu vaccines.

"The thing about flu is that it's so mutable," Bucher says.

Which is why making a vaccine requires tailoring it precisely to whatever form the flu virus finally takes and that requires time, months we may or may not have.

"We started from zero five weeks ago to all this hot, hot spotlight on pandemic flu, but we're not going to be ready," Dr. Irwin Redlener says.

If we're lucky, it won't happen. At least, not this year, and we buy ourselves time to be ready. We can only hope.