Robert G. Webster is one of the few bird flu experts confident enough to answer the key question: Will the avian flu switch from posing a terrible hazard to birds to becoming a real threat to humans?
There are “about even odds at this time for the virus to learn how to transmit human to human,” he told ABC’s “World News Tonight.” Webster, the Rosemary Thomas Chair at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., is credited with being the first scientist to find the link between human flu and bird flu.
Webster and his team of scientists are working to find a way to beat the virus if it morphs. He has even been dubbed the Flu Hunter.
Right now, H5N1, a type of avian influenza virus, has confined itself to birds. It can be transmitted from bird to human but only by direct contact with the droppings and excretions of infected birds.
But viruses mutate, and the big fear among the world’s scientists is that the bird flu virus will join the human flu virus, change its genetic code and emerge as a new and deadly flu that can spread through the air from human to human.
If the virus does mutate, it does not necessarily mean it will be as deadly to people as it is to birds. But experts such as Webster say they must prepare for the worst.
“I personally believe it will happen and make personal preparations,” said Webster, who has stored a three-month supply of food and water at his home in case of an outbreak.
More reading from the Aetiology blog: Pandemic influenza awareness week. Day 2: Our adventures with avian flu
Anyone working in the area of influenza virus epidemiology is familiar with the name Robert Webster. A virologist at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, the native New Zealander has been leading the charge against influenza for well over 40 years. Barely out of graduate school, Webster hypothesized that something like genetic reassortment (which had not yet been discovered) occurred to cause the big changes that appeared among human influenza viruses, driving pandemics. He performed a simple experiment that cemented the course of his career: he found that serum from patients who had survived the 1957 influenza pandemic reacted with avian influenza viruses. Later genetic analyses showed that the ”œAsian flu” virus had indeed received 3 of its 8 gene segments from birds. It happened again in 1968: the pandemic virus was the result of a reassortment between human and avian influenza viruses. These observations led to more than 30 years of surveillance of waterfowl in many different countries, and the revelation that these waterfowl constitute a reservoir of all known subtypes of influenza virus.
Robert Webster is currently in his mid-seventies, and much of that life has been spent battling and studying influenza. With all he’s seen, it’s significant that he’s made the following comments regarding H5N1:
This is the worst flu virus I have ever seen or worked with or read about. We have to prepare as if we were going to war””and the public needs to understand that clearly. This virus is playing its role as a natural bioterrorist. The politicians are going to say Chicken Little is at it again. And, if I’m wrong, then thank God. But if it does happen, and I fully expect that it will, there will be no place for any of us to hide. Not in the United States or in Europe or in a bunker somewhere. The virus is a very promiscuous and efficient killer.