D flu hunter sav­ing the world from the killer virus

The New Zealand Herald - - News -

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.”

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Photo / ODT

Robert Web­ster asks if a flu pan­demic were to start, would we bat­ten down the hatches?

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