The last Asian flu pandemic occurred in 1957. It is estimated that between 1 million people and 4 million people were killed by the virus.
Fast forward to October 2004 when an American lab sent out stored samples of the deadly strain of Asian flu to different labs all over the world. By some kind of administrative error some 3,700 samples of the 1957 Asian flu virus were sent out to labs around the world. The US scrambled to fix this terrible error but because the labs had expected to receive a much more normal sample of flu virus for testing they did not treat the sample with the care that the strain they received deserved. It is unlikely that all the samples were retrieved.
How could this have happened?
The College of American Pathologists, from time to time, sends out different viruses to labs worldwide. They do this so that these labs can test to see how well their vaccines are coping with the expected influenza strains. In order to make the testing accurate, the labs are not told what strain of virus they are going to receive. Only the CAP knows what they are sending out to the testing labs. The College of American Pathologists thought that they were sending out a regular old Influenza A virus but instead they sent out one of the most deadly viruses in human history: the Asian flu.
If this Asian flu had escaped into the population the consequences would have been very serious. Nobody born since 1968 would have any mmunity to the virus, the effects would likely be at least as bad as they were in 1957 when people had had the chance to buld up some immunity from the virus’ ancestors.
The incident was caused by an administrative error although the details have yet to be made public. How could 3,700 samples of Asian flu be put out into the world by accident? Samples were sent to Asia, the Middle East, North and South America as well as Europe. It only took one lab worker to have an accident, or for a lab to dispose of the samples incorrectly and the genie would have been out of the bottle.
The most chilling aspect of the issue was that because of the lack of knowledge at the receiving labs, they did not take the care that they should have. Asian flu should be kept in extreme containment. Because the kits normally contain a relatively harmless strain of flu, they do not receive great security.
This incident tends to put the curent avian (bird) flu scare into perspective. H5N1 (avian) flu does not spread from human to human, only from birds to humans or other animals. As such, whilst it is sensible to be concerned about the bird flu issue, the real threat comes from the kind of man-made mistake of October 2004 when a deadly infectious disease was carelessly handled. This kind of error can happen at any time and would have devatating consequences. Bird flu is unlikely to ever make the jump across species and even now, vaccines are almost ready to protect humans against the H5N1 flu virus.