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Experts warn: Swine flu has deadly link to strain of 1918

THE new H1N1 influenza virus bore a disturbing resemblance to the virus strain that caused the 1918 flu pandemic, with a greater ability to infect the lungs than common seasonal flu viruses, researchers reported yesterday.

Tests in animals confirmed other studies that had shown the new swine flu strain can spread beyond the upper respiratory tract to go deep into the lungs - making it more likely to cause pneumonia, the international team said.

The researchers found that people who survived the 1918 pandemic seemed to have extra immune protection against the new virus, again confirming other researchers' work.

"When we conducted the experiments in ferrets and monkeys, the seasonal virus did not replicate in the lungs," said Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, who led the study.

"The H1N1 virus replicates significantly better in the lungs," Kawaoka said.

The new swine flu virus has caused the first pandemic of the 21st century, infecting more than a million people, according to estimates, and killing at least 500.

The World Health Organization said it was causing mostly moderate disease but Kawaoka said that did not mean it was like seasonal flu.

"There is a misunderstanding about this virus," he said in a statement. "There is clear evidence the virus is different than seasonal influenza."

Writing in the journal Nature, Kawaoka and colleagues noted that the ability to infect the lungs was a characteristic of other pandemic viruses, especially the 1918 virus, which is estimated to have killed between 40 million and 100 million people.

They tested the virus in blood samples taken from nursing home residents and workers in 1999 in the United States, the Netherlands and Japan.

People born before 1920 had a strong antibody response to the swine flu virus, meaning their body "remembered" it from infection early in life. This finding supports a study published in Nature in August.

"Our findings are a reminder that swine-origin influenza viruses have not yet garnered a place in history, but may still do so, as the pandemic caused by these viruses has the potential to produce a significant impact on human health and the global economy," the researchers wrote.

Other tests showed the virus could be controlled by the antiviral drugs Relenza, and Tamiflu, they said.


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