top of page

Who Spread the Virus?

Little Thing of the Month: Medical Ethics

It is my sixth cup of tea today. My nose has done more running this spring than I have. There is no surprise that common flu can leave us sneezing, coughing and feeling miserable for days. When this flu attacks our respiratory system, our lungs struggle to get enough oxygen to the body- but most cases are not lethal. After all, there is a reason why it is called 'common' flu. 

But the influenza pandemic in 1918 wasn’t the same. Known as the 'Spanish Flu', it involved H1N1 influenza virus, strange and deadly, unlike what’s present in common cold. It combined the ease of spread we all know from the common flu with unprecedented lethality. The overcrowded camps and hospitals became ideal sites for the transmission of the virus in the U.S. military camps. However, the origin of this virus is still an uncertain story. 

The same virus was also spread to northern China and some parts of Europe including Ireland, France, and the worst-hit region, Spain. Much anticipated, however, there was no evidence found against Chinese soldiers and sailors for the spread of the virus to the United States. The aftermath was that scientists received a lot of flak for the virus blowout in the 1918 influenza pandemic. But did scientists really spread the virus?

We don't know. 

Nonetheless, this reopens the real debate: Is the reconstruction of a virus safe and justifiable?

Many scientists routinely transfer viruses to study which part of the virus makes it potentially harmful. Some of them even say that the shipments of frozen samples have survived air crashes in the past, implying the kind of safety measures taken to transport the virus.

"Conducting clinical and scientific research on select agents creates a serious ethical dilemma both for the researchers who use the agents and for the public; this situation is referred to as the dual-use risk," says Maureen Kelley of AMA Journal of Ethics. 

In 1918, increased travel played a crucial role in the occurrence of the Spanish flu worldwide. 100,000 soldiers were in transit every day during wartime. In such a scenario, the continuous study and dual-use of the flu virus made it possible to discover curative measures of the yet unknown virus H1N1. After many years, researchers at Naval Training Station in San Francisco have finally found a cure to the fatal H1N1 virus. The research suggests H5N1 plasma present in human beings can be perhaps an effective, timely and widely available treatment for the next flu pandemic.

Not to forget, one of the biggest advantages of the dual-use of viruses today is producing vaccination. It is worthwhile to admit that the field of virology has made us more prepared for unfamiliar outbreaks in the future and familiar ones of the past. 

Unfortunately, until today, there is no clear answer on how bad it would be if the virus escapes during transit. Instances like the Spanish Flu continue to remind that there is certainly a need to make international agreements to regulate work on the study of viruses.

bottom of page