Feature Profile

Jeffery Taubenberger: Back to the future

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b264 (Published 04 February 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b264
  1. Jeanne Lenzer, medical investigative journalist
  1. 1New York
  1. jeanne.lenzer{at}gmail.com

    Jeffery Taubenberger remains hopeful that the 1918 flu virus will hold the key to controlling future pandemics. Jeanne Lenzer talked to him about how he came to recreate the virus

    Jeffery Taubenberger has been simultaneously criticised for peering into Pandora’s box and extolled as the archetypal virologist credited with “solving the greatest medical mystery” of our time. In 2005, after 10 years of painstaking work, Taubenberger reconstructed the virus that caused the 1918 flu pandemic. The virus was an H1N1 strain that infected almost one third of the global population and killed an estimated 40-100 million people in a matter of months—more than the two world wars, the Korean war, and the Vietnam war combined. Even the black death in the 14th century didn’t cause that much carnage in so short a time.

    Taubenberger, a pathologist and currently a senior investigator at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, conducted his research while working for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. His quest to reconstruct the virus’s genome triggered protests from groups such as the now defunct Sunshine Project, which monitored biological warfare and the military abuse of biotechnology. In 2003, the group issued a report charging that Taubenberger’s work was “one step away from taking the 1918 demon entirely out of the bottle and bringing the Spanish flu back to life.” Ed Hammond, former director of the project, said that reconstructing the 1918 flu virus “crossed the line. . . “You don’t create a threat in order to justify defences against it.”

    Taubenberger, 46, responds to the charges evenly. He understands the worries. But he also knows the dangers of not doing the research. “I want to know what made this virus so virulent,” he says. And why, he asks, did the 1918 virus kill …

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