Flu man

When bird flu killed six peo­ple in Hong Kong in 1997, NZ-trained vi­rol­o­gist Robert Web­ster was quickly on the scene.

New Zealand Listener - - THIS LIFE - by Ruth Ni­chol

As Robert Web­ster points out, he’s prob­a­bly the only per­son to be­come a mem­ber of two pres­ti­gious sci­en­tific or­gan­i­sa­tions – the Na­tional Acad­emy of Sciences in the US and the Royal So­ci­ety in the UK – by stick­ing swabs up the rear end of birds. On the up­side, the Bal­clutha-born vi­rol­o­gist has done the swab­bing in all sorts of ex­otic lo­ca­tions. Over the past 50 years, he’s tested for the in­fluenza virus in sam­ples taken from birds on the Great Bar­rier Reef in Aus­tralia and the Guano Is­lands in Peru; in the Florida Keys and Delaware Bay in the US; and in China, Hong Kong, Siberia and Antarc­tica.

It’s made for a vi­rol­ogy ca­reer with a dif­fer­ence for Web­ster, who has just pub­lished a mem­oir called Flu Hunter: Un­lock­ing the Se­crets of a Virus.

“Most vi­rol­o­gists spend their time in lab­o­ra­to­ries rather than chas­ing viruses around the world,” says Web­ster from his home in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, where he has lived since the 1970s.

Web­ster’s many decades as a flu hunter haven’t just pro­vided him with great travel op­por­tu­ni­ties. They’ve also es­tab­lished him as a lead­ing flu re­searcher who helped prove that flu viruses are spread by wild aquatic birds to do­mes­tic poul­try and pigs, and even­tu­ally to hu­mans.

“Wild aquatic birds are the ul­ti­mate reser­voir for the in­fluenza virus – all the fam­i­lies of in­fluenza viruses that we know about live in the wild ducks of the world.”

He de­scribes ducks as the Tro­jan horse of the flu virus. They rarely show any signs of the dis­ease but can spread flu viruses long dis­tances, and in­fect birds and an­i­mals such as poul­try and pigs. Oc­ca­sion­ally, thanks to a process Web­ster calls “re­as­sort­ment”, avian and an­i­mal flu viruses can ex­change genes with hu­man flu viruses to cre­ate new flu strains peo­ple have no abil­ity to fight.

By the 1990s, it was widely ac­cepted that in­fluenza could emerge in poul­try and pigs from viruses in wild aquatic birds. But it was still not ac­cepted that bird viruses could lead di­rectly to in­fluenza in hu­mans.

That all changed in 1997, when six peo­ple in Hong Kong died from a strain of flu called H5N1 that had pre­vi­ously ap­peared only in birds. Web­ster im­me­di­ately flew to Hong Kong and, af­ter test­ing for H5N1 in lo­cal poul­try, he and his col­leagues

rec­om­mended killing the coun­try’s 1.5 mil­lion chick­ens to stop the virus – known as bird flu – from spread­ing.

Web­ster’s big fear was that the H5N1 virus would ei­ther re­as­sort or mu­tate and de­velop the abil­ity to spread eas­ily from one hu­man to an­other – with po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic re­sults. Although only a few peo­ple are sus­cep­ti­ble to the H5N1 virus in its cur­rent form, it has a much higher mor­tal­ity rate than the Span­ish flu of 1918, which killed 50 to 100 mil­lion peo­ple.

For­tu­nately, although the virus still ex­ists in many parts of Asia, it has not yet de­vel­oped the abil­ity to spread be­tween hu­mans. But Web­ster says it still could. This may hap­pen through the process of re­as­sort­ment, most likely in a pig that has been in­fected si­mul­ta­ne­ously by the H5N1 virus and a hu­man flu virus. Or it could sim­ply mu­tate. He sus­pects mu­ta­tion – pos­si­bly caused by the mus­tard gas used in the trenches dur­ing World War I – is what turned the Span­ish flu from a rel­a­tively be­nign virus into a killer.

H5N1 is just one of sev­eral ex­ist­ing flu viruses with the po­ten­tial to cause se­ri­ous pan­demics. Oth­ers in­clude H7N9, an­other bird flu that has oc­ca­sion­ally spread to and killed hu­mans, and H2N2, which has been lurk­ing in the world’s wild birds since it killed 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple in 1957.

Web­ster, who at age 86 con­tin­ues to keep a close eye on the lat­est flu re­search, says these threats make ef­forts to find both a cure for the flu and a vac­cine to pre­vent it even more ur­gent.

“Sooner or later we’ll have a nasty one so let’s pre­pare for that with drugs and uni­ver­sal vac­cines and so on. We’re cer­tainly a lot bet­ter pre­pared than we were in 1918, but we also have air travel, which could spread it to ev­ery part of the world in two days.”

“We’re bet­ter pre­pared than we were in 1918, but air travel could spread the flu all over the world in two days.”

Flu Hunter: Un­lock­ing the Se­crets of a Virus, by Robert G Web­ster, Otago Uni­ver­sity Press, $35

Robert Web­ster: 50 years on the flu’s trail.

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