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At least 40 million died of the 1918-19 "Spanish flu," the most deadly disease episode in history. Influenza cases were treated at places including this army ward in Kansas in 1918. (National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology)

The Flu Hunter

For years, Robert Webster has been warning of a global influenza outbreak. Now governments worldwide are finally listening to him

Before they went to work in Hong Kong, Webster and his colleagues created a sort of crude vaccine from a sample containing the H5N1 virus. They declined to discuss the matter in detail, but they treated the sample to inactivate the virus. Webster arranged for a pathologist in Hong Kong to drip the vaccine into his nose and the noses of his staff. In theory, an-tibodies to the virus would soon form.

“Are you sure this is inactivated?” the pathologist said.

Webster pondered the question for a moment.

“Yes it is. I hope.”

And the fluid began dripping.

“It’s very important to do things for yourself,” Webster told me recently. “Scientists these days want other people to do things for them. But I think you have to be there, to be in the field, to see interactions.” In many ways, Webster’s remarkable career can be traced to a walk along an Australian beach in the 1960s, when he was a microbiology research fellow at Australian National University.

He was strolling along with his research partner Graeme Laver. Webster was in his 30s then, Laver a little older. Every 10 or 15 yards they came across a dead mutton bird that apparently had been washed up on the beach. By that time, the two men had been studying influenza for several years. They knew that in 1961, terns in South Africa had been killed by an influenza virus. Webster asked Laver: “What if the flu killed these birds?”

It was a tantalizing question. They decided to investigate further, arranging a trip to a deserted coral island off Queensland. Their boss was not entirely supportive of the adventure. “Laver is hallucinating,” the boss told a colleague. They were undeterred. “Why there?” Laver once wrote of the trip. “Beautiful islands in an azure sea, hot sand, a baking sun, and warm coral lagoon. What better place to do flu research!” They snorkeled during the day. At night, they swabbed the throats of hundreds of birds. Back at their lab, they had a eureka moment: 18 birds had antibodies to a human flu virus that had circulated among people in 1957. Of course this meant only that the birds had been exposed to the virus, not that they were carrying or transmitting it.

To figure out if they were, Webster and Laver took subsequent trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Phillip Island and Tryon Island. More swimming during the day, sherry parties at dusk, and then a few hours of swabbing birds. They took the material back to their lab at Australian National University, in Canberra. It is standard procedure to grow flu viruses in chicken eggs. So they injected the material from the swabs into chicken eggs, to see if the influenza virus would grow. Two days later the fluid was harvested. In most of the eggs, the virus had not grown. But in one of the eggs, it had grown. That could mean
only one thing: the virus was in the birds.

Webster wanted to know more. Specifically, he wanted to know whether birds might have played a role in the influenza pandemic of 1957. He traveled to the World Influenza Center, in London, which has a large collection of influenza virus strains from birds and also antibody samples from flu victims. His experiment there was rather simple. He gathered antibody samples from victims of the 1957 flu pandemic. He also gathered samples of several avian flu strains. Then he mixed the samples. What did the antibodies do? They attacked the bird flu strains, meaning the human flu virus had some of the same molecular features as avian flu viruses.

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