‘Na­ture only needs to shuf­fle the per­fect hand’ and his­tory could re­peat.

Dionne Chris­tian talks to the New Zealan

The New Zealand Herald - - News -

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

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