‘Nature only needs to shuffle the perfect hand’ and history could repeat.
Dionne Christian talks to the New Zealan
Growing up on a Balclutha farm in the 1930s and 40s, one of Robert Webster’s jobs was to put the family’s Khaki Campbell ducks away at night.
Fond as Webster was of the ducks, he kept a more watchful eye on the destruction rabbits caused.
Had he known what he knows now, Webster might have been more guarded around ducks. Much of what we know now about the origins of influenza pandemics — outbreak of the flu — is because of Webster, a pioneering virologist and bird-flu expert.
In the 1960s and 70s, Webster and colleagues studied the link between bird and human flu viruses, showing that wild ducks are the ultimate reservoir of most influenza viruses.
But, when Webster left the University of Otago in 1957 with a BSc and MSc in microbiology and joined the New Zealand Department of Agriculture, he was most excited about pox viruses. He initially focused on the evocatively named “Scabby Mouth”, a serious threat to the health of sheep and goats.
Then Webster heard about Australian research into myxomatosis — a pox virus usually lethal to rabbits — so set off to do a PhD at the John Curtin Medical School with Professor Frank Fenner who
iFlu Hunter: Unlocking the secrets of a virus By Robert G Webster (University of Otago Press, $35)
was leading the studies. Some 56 years later and talking from his home in Memphis Tennessee, Webster describes his disappointment at what he found in Canberra.
“The day I arrived . . . I sat down with Professor Fenner, in front of his desk as a young student, and he said, ‘you’re going to work with influenza’.”
“I was devastated. The pox viruses were the exciting thing; having grown up on a farm and knowing about the rabbit problem in New Zealand, I thought that would be a wonderful thing to work on. But it wasn’t to be. That’s what happens in life, so you make the most of it.”
And make the most of it he did. His honours include membership of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand where, at his former university, the Webster Centre for Infectious Diseases is named after him and wife, Marjorie.
At 86, he still works in infectious diseases at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the US where he continues to publish research papers — more than 600 to date — mentor others and run influenza investigations and programmes around the world.
This year, we get a salient reminder of just how deadly the respiratory infection can be. It’s the centenary of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic dubbed the Spanish Flu because Spain, neutral during World War I, was not subject to the reporting restrictions of most of the Western world, meaning newspapers could report what a swathe the illness was cutting through the population.
Up to 500 million people were infected by the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, which came in three waves, the first mild, the second ruinous and