Robert Webster: ‘We ignore bird flu at our peril’
With the UN issuing renewed warnings and a Hollywood disaster movie stoking our fears, bird flu is back in the news. We meet the man who first warned of a pandemic 50 years ago – and who is worried again now.
“I haven’t seen the film yet but bird flu is the real killer lurking in the shadows,” says Robert Webster, the world’s pre-eminent expert on bird flu, when I catch up with him en route from Oxford to Malta where he has back-to-back influenza conferences. “Nature has already shown us that there is a virus out there that kills 50% of the people it infects. We ignore it at our peril.”
It is a warning that Webster, a virologist known as the “pope of bird flu”, has been sounding for more than 50 years, initially to the scepticism of his peers but to growing respect more recently. The virus that keeps Webster awake at night is H5N1.
it was the resurgence of human infections in Thailand and Vietnam in 2003, followed by outbreaks on chicken farms across Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe in 2005 that made H5N1 a household name, while the H1N1 swine-flu outbreak of 2009 prompted the World Health Organisation to declare a pandemic. “We were extremely lucky in 2009,” he says.
“Nature didn’t put in the killer genes, that’s all.”
At the same time, Webster insists, the threat from H5N1 has not gone away. On the contrary, if the latest the scientific data are to be believed, a new “mutant” strain of the virus, codenamed 2.3.2., has already moved from China and Vietnam to central Asia and eastern Europe, spread by migratory waterfowl.
Meanwhile, in H5N1 “hotspots” such as Egypt, where another variant is endemic in the poultry industry, the virus continues to kill people in significant numbers.
As Webster told an international gathering of flu experts at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, earlier this month: “Highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza appears to be spreading into Eurasia again, most likely carried by wild bird migrations. It’s only a matter of time before it comes to the Americas.”
Webster, who is 79 and was raised on a farm in New Zealand, has spent half his life on the trail of bird flu. Based at the Department of Infectious Diseases at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where he presides over the world’s only laboratory studying the human-animal interface in flu, Webster has incubated thousands of chicken’s eggs in search of life-saving vaccines and has fostered the careers of scores of researchers.
“What people don’t appreciate is that H5N1 has already been the cause of a chicken apocalypse. Once it learns to go human to human there’ll be no stopping the damn thing.”
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