The Flu Hunter

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

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)
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Watching Webster speak, I couldn’t help thinking that animals are not always our friends. It turns out that animals are a frequent source of what ails us. University of Edinburgh researchers recently compiled a rather frightening list of 1,415 microbes that cause diseases in humans. Sixty-one percent of those microbes are carried by animals and transmitted to humans. Cats and dogs are responsible for 43 percent of those microbes, according to the Edinburgh researchers; horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs transmit 39 percent; rodents, 23 percent; birds, 10 percent. Primates originally transmitted AIDS to humans. Cows transmit bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. In their 2004 book, Beasts of the Earth: Animals, Humans and Disease, the physicians E. Fuller Torrey and Robert Yolken cite evidence suggesting that a parasite transmitted by cats, Toxoplasma gondii, causes schizophrenia. Acouple of years ago, the monkeypox virus broke out among several people in the Midwest who had recently had close contact with pet prairie dogs.

And then there are pigs. For many years, Webster has theorized that pigs are the mixing bowls for pandemic flu outbreaks. He has actually enshrined the theory in his house. He has a stained-glass window next to his front door that depicts what he perceives to be the natural evolution of flu pandemics. At the top of the glass, birds fly. Below them, a pig grazes. Man stands off to the left. Below all of them are circles that represent viruses and seem to be in motion. They are set in a backdrop of fever red.

The pig is in the picture because its genome, perhaps surprisingly, shares certain key features with the human genome. Pigs readily catch human flu strains. Pigs are also susceptible to picking up avian flu strains, mostly because they often live so close to poultry. If a human flu strain and an avian flu strain infect a pig cell at the same time, and the two different viruses exchange genetic material inside a pig cell, it’s possible that the virulent avian strain will pick up human flu virus genes that control transmission between people. If that happens with H5N1, that will almost certainly mean that the virus will be able to pass easily from person to person. A pandemic may not be far behind.

During his talk in Atlanta, Webster pointed out that this H5N1 virus was so crafty that it has already learned to infect tigers and other cats, something no avian flu has ever done. “The pig may or may not be necessary” for a pandemic to go off, Webster said. “Anyway, this virus has a chance at being successful.” He said he hoped world health officials “would keep making their plans because they may face it this winter.
We hope not.”

I went hunting with Webster. Hunting for corn. His cornfield is on a patch of land he owns about five miles from his home on the outskirts of Memphis. He grows genetically modified corn that he gets from Illinois. An extra gene component known for increasing sweetness has been inserted into the corn’s DNA, producing some of the sweetest corn in the United States. Three of his grandchildren were with us, visiting from North Carolina. They had come, among other reasons, for Webster’s annual Corn Fest, where members of the virology department at St. Jude Hospital gather in his backyard to sit around eating corn on the cob. The record for the most ears of corn eaten in one sitting at the Corn Fest is 17. The record holder is the teenage son of one of Webster’s protégés. Webster reports the prize was a three-day stomachache. He encouraged me not to beat this record.

“There’s a good one,” Webster said, bending down to pull off an ear. He was wearing long shorts, a plaid blue shirt and a wide-brimmed canvas hat. He had been fussing around among the stalks for a few minutes before he found an ear he liked. He seemed unhappy with the quality of the corn, muttering into his chest. In between picking some ears, I asked why he was down on the crop. “I believe I planted too soon,” he said. “The ground was still too damp.” This caused many of the ears to bloom improperly. I asked why he had planted so early. He said, “I had to be in Asia.” It occurred to me that attempting to stop a global epidemic was a reasonable excuse for a so-so batch of corn.

Webster was home this weekend for the first time in many weeks. He had been to Asia and back nearly a dozen times in the past year. I asked Marjorie Webster how often she sees him, and she replied, “Not much these days.” It is a sacrifice she seems willing to make; Webster has told her plenty about the bug and what it can do.

We picked corn for about half an hour, then went back to Webster’s home to do some shucking. He shucked at a pace nearly double mine. We must have shucked 250 ears of corn. We placed the shucked ears in a cooler of ice. By noon we had finished, so I decided to go do some sightseeing. Beale Street, Elvis impersonators, several barbecue joints. A little before 5 p.m., I wandered into the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, a landmark. I wanted to see the ducks. Since the 1930s, ducks have swum in a fountain in the hotel’s lobby. The ducks live upstairs in a sort of duck mansion. In the morning, they ride down in an elevator. When the elevator doors open in the lobby, the ducks wobble down a red carpet, single file, about 30 yards, in front of hundreds of people who snap photographs as if they were duck paparazzi. When the ducks plop into the fountain, people cheer. At 5 p.m., the ducks are done for the day; they wobble back along the carpet to the elevator, then ride back to their mansion for dinner. One generally has to witness the occasion to believe it.

I wondered whether Webster had ever tested these ducks. That evening, at the corn party, after my third ear, and Webster’s second, I told him that I had gone to see the ducks. “Oh, the Peabody ducks,” he said, the first time I’d seen him visibly happy in days. “The kids loved the ducks when they were little.” I asked whether he liked the ducks too. “Why not? I enjoy the ducks,” he said. I said, “Have you ever swabbed them?” He answered: “No. Sometimes you just don’t want to know. There are some ducks I won’t swab.”

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