D flu hunter saving the world from the killer virus
the third bringing a gradual reduction in severity. It killed between 50 and 100 million people globally — 3 to 6 per cent of the world’s population. In Samoa, the death toll was about 8500, about 22 per cent of the population, after the New Zealand ship Talune docked and sick passengers were allowed to disembark.
In this country, — from October to December 1918 — we lost 8573, about half as many as the 16,500 New Zealanders killed during the four years of WWI. Ma¯ ori were up to seven times more likely to die.
Public gatherings were cancelled, opening hours at businesses and public facilities restricted (or they closed because employees were too sick to staff them) and those who were well enough bravely volunteered to nurse the sick, check on family, friends and neighbours or, if they had a vehicle, deliver food and medicine or transport bodies for burial. Streets were disinfected; those who ventured out sprayed themselves with a solution of zinc sulphate, now known to offer no protection.
It’s Webster’s work, alongside collaborations with scientists around the globe, that will hopefully save the world from a flu pandemic as catastrophic as 1918. Now he’s written a memoir, Flu Hunter: Unlocking the secrets of a virus.
The title “Flu Hunter” is a nod toward the moniker bestowed on him by the Smithsonian magazine in 2006.
The first chapter, devoted to the impact of that outbreak, offers provocative research and thoughts about how the 20th century might have been different if, for example, US President Woodrow Wilson, one of those negotiating the reparations and restrictions post-WWI Germany would face, hadn’t become seriously ill with influenza. Wilson was a moderate who didn’t want Germany brought to her knees; others, notably France, were less forgiving. But when he recovered from flu, Wilson gave in to all the French demands.
“Germany was beaten into the ground; extremists took charge — the Hitlers of the world — and that led to World War II. The so-called bird flu, H5N1, we know gets to the brain experimentally of ferrets and mice so I suspect that Wilson was one of a genetically susceptible group of people who permitted the virus to travel to the brain.”
What had Webster, born just 13 years after the pandemic, heard about it? Not a lot.
“No one in the family, to my knowledge, died in 1918 but I would be surprised if they didn’t. “I knew there’d been the 1918 influenza outbreak and, periodically, there were pandemics and probably the periodic pandemics . . . well, at that stage, no one really understood where they came from.”
Webster’s team, made up of ex-trainees from St Jude’s, isolated the “avian-adapted strain” of H5NI, which causes bird-flu, and were on the front lines of the fight to contain it when, in 1997, it appeared in humans in Hong Kong.
Occasionally, H5N1 infects humans and when it does, about 60 per cent of those who catch it die. If it were to mutate, allowing for easier transmission between humans, we’d potentially face a pandemic.
“Two groups of scientists looked at the question of, ‘would the bird flu H5N1 ever learn how to transmit human to human?’. So, they set out and made changes in it so it would transmit ferret to ferret and they put in five changes in the spike on the surface of flu — those five changes actually exist in the world in different strains of H5N1 — and it did transmit.
“I describe it like a card game, that Mother Nature hasn’t shuffled a perfect hand. If Mother Nature put all of those changes together in the virus herself, it would be a bloody disaster. It’s a matter of luck, a matter of chance, as to whether or not we get one of these nasty ones.”
It’s when, not if, says Webster, who agrees we’ve become complacent about the flu because there hasn’t been a recent pandemic. (It still kills about 500 New Zealanders annually. According to a University of Otago study, Ma¯ ori, Pacific Islanders, men and those in poverty are most at risk.)
“It hasn’t happened so, 20 years on, people are saying, ‘it can’t happen’ but we know, scientifically, that it can.”
Robert Webster asks if a flu pandemic were to start, would we batten down the hatches?