News of the WeekSwine Flu Pandemic

What's Old Is New: 1918 Virus Matches 2009 H1N1 Strain

Science  26 Mar 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5973, pp. 1563-1564
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5973.1563

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The "novel" H1N1 swine influenza virus that last year caused the first human pandemic in 4 decades has one feature that is hardly novel: Its surface protein, hemagglutinin (HA)—which spikes cells and starts an infection—closely matches the HA in the H1N1 virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic. Separated by 91 years, the two strains of the highly mutable virus ought to be vastly different. This newfound similarity answers many mysteries about the 2009 pandemic, including why it largely spared the elderly. The new findings, reported online this week in Science and Science Translational Medicine, also suggest intriguing explanations for how the 1918 influenza virus has evolved since it swept across the globe in several waves, killing more than 50 million people by the winter of 1919. And the investigators are proposing provocative—some say far-fetched—vaccination strategies to preempt future pandemics.