Virus Hunters

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bird flu again 2

Bird flu: it could happen here. [Julian AustinTX / Flickr]

Several times now you’ve asked us to take a look at bird flu. There was good ol’ Potter back in August…and again in October… and then there was the request made by fred02472 around the same time.

We haven’t been ignoring you. We’ve been trying for some time now to figure out a way to cover the bird flu story, which has captured the world’s attention and has provoked a great deal of fear and anxiety amongst those of us who would prefer not to die en masse in the street. It’s hard to know where to start, especially given the hype and panic around the story. Weakened public health infrastructure in the US and abroad? Poor monitoring and inadequate testing facilities in the far east? Mass domestication of chickens and their close proximity to humans? Calls for state-sponsored production of generic Tamiflu? My head hurts already. (Hopefully it’s not the flu.)

So here’s what we’ve come up with. We’ll begin at the beginning. Rather than start with the politics of the story or the public health response angle of the story, we’d like to do a show about the people we’re calling “virus hunters” – the scientists who are doing the hard work of tracking down and mapping the virus world wide. We’d like to tackle the science but also make it accessible, to help us all understand the sleuthing so many dedicated researchers are using to pin down and ultimately fight this disease.

Here are some of our questions: How do you track a mutating virus across dozens of countries, hundreds of species, and thousands of years? Do zoologists and human biologists have to team up like never before? Did the 1918 “Spanish flu” actually originate in Spain? Does all influenza really come from China, as some scientists think? How does a virus from wild birds become so deadly to domestic ones? Why do some become efficient in human-to-human transmission and others don’t? The conversation doesn’t have to stick to avian flu exclusively…conversations about tracking SARS, AIDS, and other migrating diseases would also be entirely appropriate.

As Mary would say, this story has a tremendous amount of “blog juice.” Help us find the bloggers tackling the science of the story. Also, if you’d like to read some of the articles I’ve tagged on this subject (and add some of your own) you can do so here. If you tag sites with “radioopensource” and “virushunters,” we’ll be able to see them and we’ll make sure to add them to our reading list. There are also two great articles by the New York Times‘ science correspondent Gina Kolata that are on our reading list, but which are hiding behind the Times Select firewall.

William Karesh


Head of the Field Veterinary Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society

Author, Appointment at the Ends of the World: Memoirs of a Wildlife Veterinarian

David Swayne


Director of the USDA Southeast Poultry Research Lab

Terrence Tumpey

UPDATE: Terrence Tumpey just came down with a flu (irony!) and sadly won’t be able to join us…

Senior microbiologist at the CDC who has recreated the 1918 pandemic flu virus

Edward Dubovi


Director of the Viral Section of the Diagnostic Lab at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Rubin Donis

Chief of Molecular Genetics at the Influenza Branch of the CDC

Extra-Credit Reading

MSNBC News Services, “Bird flu proving resistant to Tamiflu treatment”

Guardian Unlimited, “Countries urged to give millions in bird flu fight”

Ben Blanchard and Lindsay Beck (Reuters), “Experts seek funds as bird flu claims fresh victims”

Mapping the spread: BBC News,“How bird flu has spread”

BBC News, “Global impact of bird flu”

Web Features

A Complete Guide to Hunting the Bird Flu Online

Photographing Birdflu

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  • elphaba

    My husband and I have been watching the bird flu and other viruses emerging with a lot of interest. I’m relieved that the potential threat of bird flu is finally getting some attention. A pandemic flu with a kill rate of plus or minus 5% would shake us up. It would be Hurricane Katrina on a grand scale. We in the “western world” are blessedly unfamiliar with the ravages of disease, thanks to anitbiotics (a gift we have squandered) and a long period without a pandemic outbreak of disease. I am afraid that forwarning will not do us much good. We knew well in advance what would happen to New Orleans if a class 4 hurricane hit it, and chose to do nothing. A proactive, responsible approach to an outbreak of pandemic flu will be much more difficult than protecting New Orleans or the people of New Orleans from flooding.

    I’ve read one book on the 1918 flu (can’t remember the name since I currently have the flu, which is why I’m here at the computer instead of outside) The book called Plagues and People is very good. It talks about migrations of people and their diseases. Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel is also very good for putting micro-organisms in perspective.

  • Liz Tracey

    John Barry’s The Great Influenza is an excellent resource, not only on the 1918 pandemic, but the larger history of virus hunting and the simultaneous struggle to professionalize medicine that was going on at the time. Having him participate would be a boon to all. 🙂

  • anhhung18901

    “A Global Strategy for the Progressive Control of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)” by the Food and Agricultural Organization, World Organization for Animal Health, and the World Health Organization has a lot of good information on this topic…(

  • Jackson

    A couple of thoughts: virus as fact (bird flu), virus as metaphor. What the two thoughts depend on is immediate contact between human beings — not to mention birds and sensitive pigs and (who knows?) truffle hunters.

    Thanks to Carl Maria von Sydow — biologist, folklorist, and father to the chess-playing Max in Bergman films — we learned that the conveyance of human experience was essentially viral — in his scheme, a joke becomes a cough, a ballad a gusty sneeze.

    Few people are going to stand up and shout about the transcendental quality of infectious disease — but I hope someone on the program will channel Emerson on the bird flu and evolution. We cannot develop resistance until we’ve been exposed. Emerson, I suspect, would have preached exposure.

    Be strong, citizens!

  • elphaba

    Theoretically, a nice little virus with a 5 – 10% kill rate would be good for the planet. Humans are not endangered species. Our population is at dangerous levels. But a virus with a 5 – 10% kill rate, which is quite mild in comparison to a lot of diseases which used( and still do in many parts of the world ) to go through human populations, is one I definitely want to avoid. I don’t want members of my family dying. Even a 5% mortality rate would mean that a small school would have 15 – 20 children die.

    Turkey now has cases of bird to human transmittion of flu.

    I heard that the federal budget has big increases in defense spending and NASA for manned space travel. The National Institutes of Health had no increases. So much for the Bush Administration acting on concerns.

    The microbial world poses a huge threat to human population and civilization as we know it. The only way terrorists could take out 5% of the population would be through the use of nuclear weapons.

  • Robin

    Gee Elphaba, that first part is a little gross and cynical.

  • Last November I attended a the Third Annual Medicine in the tTme of Bioterrorism Conference in Providence, RI. Every year they confer the “September Eleventh Award” on someone who has contributed to biodefense over the past year. This year, the award went to John Barry, author of The Great Influenza, who was also the keynote speaker.

    Barry was the only speaker who wasn’t a professional health care worker or biologist. He pointed this out in his talk, noting that many such conferences have tapped him to speak on the flu because at this point he knows just about as much as anyone else does on the subject. This was pretty surprising to him, as he initially had thought that there must be hordes of doctors and MPH’s who were way more informed than he was. Turns out he’s emerged as a real expert on pandemic flu. That’d be kind of like tapping Jonathan Schell to head Bush’s war cabinet or something.

    I was thinking about why there are so few panflu experts and I remembered a point from Barry’s talk: a pandemic flu strain arises just about every 40 years. That’s about the length of a scientific career and enough time for researchers to stop caring until another outbreak begins to threaten. That’s too bad. Imagine if we had started preparing for this outbreak after the last one in ’68?

    (another fun fact from Barry’s talk, not sure if it’s apocryphal or not: Because Spain wasn’t in WWI, they were the first western nation to start freaking out about the flu despite the fact that it was already ravaging other countries as well. Because their papers were the only ones reporting on it, it gave the impression that they were the only ones suffering from it, hence The Spanish Flu.)

  • avecfrites

    I want to discuss what we as individuals do if human-to-human transmissible bird flu hits the US. Do we basically stay home for 3 months? Will the public utilities keep working? What does Nostradamus say about this?

  • A little yellow bird

    Right about now, I’m gloating over being a vegan. Come the livestock revolution (which will not be televised), some of us humans will be spared and made honorary livestock. Kinda like a “Schindler’s List”, but scratched into the barnyard dust… I still think this mutation is biowar. Guarantee none of Team Bush passes on from the bug. Actually, Caligula-on-the-Potomac may kill one of his own daughters or someone like that, just for plausible deniability; plus it’s a real biblical-type action.

  • A little yellow bird

    “elphaba”: Humanity is not at dangerous levels–the way we live, which is voluntary, since we are sentient, is partially destructive. Humanity does not need to be killed off; it needs to alter what it does. I think we could have three times our current population living richer and healthier and fullfilling lives if we changed our ways.

  • Jonathan Shay

    I spend 3/4 of my time in a branch of preventive medicine–the specifics aren’t relevant to this program–but I feel very strongly that we are neglecting a major lifesaving opportunity: TO CONVERT A DEADLY FLU TO A MERELY NASTY ONE. The policiticans as a group are only talking about the “best” solution–to prevent people from getting sick in the first place. Good if you can get it! But given the doubtful effectiveness of the antiviral drugs and the long lead time for an effective vaccine, and the tremendous difficulty of truly quarantining an outbreak, why aren’t we working on other mitigating strategies at the same time?

    One such strategy has a face appeal: the commonplace drugs to lower cholesterol, the “statins” are inhibitors of parts of the inflamatory machinery [cytokines] that kill the young and fit in a 1918-type flu pandemic. Unlike the antiviral drugs, [1] dozens of pharmaceutical firms have the know-how to manufacture these and [2] one of the statins, lovistatin, is off patent, and simvastatin will come off patent this summer. [I have no financial interest in this whatever, in case you are wondering.] [3] if this works, someone recovering from the non-lethal case would be totally immune from catching it again, and could care for others and carry on basic services without fear.

    See the following for the scientific background to the plausibility of this approach

    Science vol 309 pp 1976f, 23 Sept 2005

    Circulation 110:880-885 (2004)

    Clin. Infect. Dis. 33:1352-1357 (2001)

    Circulation 109:2560-2565 (2004)

    Am J Respir Crit Care Med 171:606-615 (2005)

    Respiratory Research 6:82 (2005)

    What is not known is:

    Whether this is more than just a persuasive story

    Whether one statin is better than another

    What dose

    Whether the statin has to be taken for a period [how long?] before exposure, or whether it can be started after exposure, or after symptoms first appear

    IF this is a good approach, we could prevent millions, possibly tens of millions of deaths, while not stopping a single infection.



    Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

  • Potter

    What about those of us who feed the wild birds? And even if we don’t, we have all sorts of birds around anyway migratory and non-migratory including wild turkey,blue heron and ducks and Canada geese. There are droppings all around us.

    I’m still feeding them.

    We have stockpiled enough food to quarantine ourselves for 3 months if necessary and we have a supply of latex gloves and masks. Don’t laugh. But it may be futile.

    And what if there is a second wave and third wave of it? And what will the world be like with people dying all around like the during the bubonic plague?

  • alicecbrown

    Did you know that Donald Rumsfeld is raking in the profits from the Tavisflu vaccine that his puppet Bush has purchased with $3 billion from your and my pockets?

    Did you know that this so-called vaccine against the avian flue has been shown to BARELY work. In that fact lies the hidden danger: Taking so long to kill the virus gives the avian flu virus the opportunity to mutate and get even stronger.

    so what happens is that you take a vaccine hoping to avoid the avian flu and death and then are killed because Rumsfeld’s vaccine actually makes you worse, the avian flu bug stronger.

    Just as he has dealt what maybe a lethal blow to our society Bill of Rights-wise, so he does it to our people from another form of corruption, that of the body from the avian flu.

    Why was this not mentioned last night?

  • elphaba

    I said that I want to avoid a flu outbreak (even if it only had a 5 – 10% kill rate.) The I, was not just myself and my immediate family, it is everyone worldwide. I am glad that what I said got some attention. I think the microbial world and what it can do to us is ignored to the peril of us all. I think it ranks right up there with loose nukes and terrorists. We spend trillions on military defense. None of that money will do any good against a nasty microbe. We don’t even have any real plan for a bad influenza, which is a virus we know a lot about. Think about something new, like a HIV that is transmitted through a mosquito.

    Historically, disease has had major impacts worldwide. When syphillis first emerged from who knows where, in a few months it killed 40% of those who contracted it. We in the US are mostly european, that is because our diseases had close to a 90% kill rate on the native population. This was only a few hundred years ago! I don’t want to see a microbial outbreak go around the world and wreak havoc.

    I often dispair at the destructiveness of humans, but I am hopeful that our wonderful brains will come to our rescue and we will learn to live in balance.

    I think immunizing poultry in some areas would be a good strategy. I believe they are doing that in Vietnam. Wealthy countries should support this. I think immunizing poultry is better than automatically thinking of culling all poultry in an area where the birds may be exposed. Its unreasonable to expect people who sit next to starvation to kill and throw away both the chicken and the egg. Reducing bird flu in birds would lower the exposure to humans and therefore lower the odds of mutation of a bird flu that will transmit human to human.

    There are a lot of problems with vaccines for flu. In this case we’re talking about a strain that hasn’t emerged. The vaccine for this years flu is ineffective for 90% of the cases.

    I believe that Tavisflu and Tamiflu are not vaccines, they are anti-virals. A vaccine gives your immune system a heads up so it can recognize a virus and kill it when it shows up.

    Jonathon Shay – Have they considered using the statins in the outbreaks in Turkey and Asia this year? Are they seeing the cytokine response in the cases they have now? I know that the strain that is infecting people now isn’t the same as what it would be if it crossed over; is the cytokine response typical of the avian flu?

  • Man of Misery

    I got here late. (Story of my life). A few random thoughts:

    A couple of good resources on the subject of pandemic influenza: (they linked me here) and (a public health blog). For the deeply interested in the genetics:, and of course, the CDC ( and WHO ( sites.

    I had the same thoughts as Jonathan RE: the statins. If we put everyone on statin drugs and it didn’t work to protect us from cytokine storm, at least the heart attack rate should go down…

    Elphaba makes a good point about Tamiflu, it is an anti-viral, while a vaccine primes your own immune system to fight the bad bugs.

    Laurie Garrett (and others, i’m sure) makes an interesting point about when the virus gets to Africa, where a significant percentage of the population is immune compromized. They won’t mount the cytokine storm, and more may survive. Will this be a good thing, or might the virus “learn” things from HIV, or (perhaps worse) “teach” it things. Maybe they will end up with a bunch of infected “carriers” who never clear the virus and so serve as a continuing source of infection and a possible “mixing vessel” in which the virus can mutate into something even worse.

    One of the problems with the poultry vaccine is that it does not necessarily stop the birds from becoming infected, it just keeps them from dying. Eating/handling infected birds is (currently) the primary way of getting infected.

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