Flu Hunter: Unlocking the secrets of a virus
By Robert G Webster
(University of Otago Press, $35)
Growing up on a Balclutha farm in the 1930s and 40s, one of Robert Webster's jobs was to put the family's Khaki Campbell ducks away at night.
Fond as Webster was of the ducks, he kept a more watchful eye on the destruction rabbits caused.
Had he known what he knows now, Webster might have been more guarded around ducks. Much of what we know now about the origins of influenza pandemics — outbreak of the flu — is because of Webster, a pioneering virologist and bird-flu expert.
In the 1960s and 70s, Webster and colleagues studied the link between bird and human flu viruses, showing that wild ducks are the ultimate reservoir of most influenza viruses.
But, when Webster left the University of Otago in 1957 with a BSc and MSc in microbiology and joined the New Zealand Department of Agriculture, he was most excited about pox viruses. He initially focused on the evocatively-named "Scabby Mouth", a serious threat to the health of sheep and goats.
Then Webster heard about Australian research into myxomatosis — a pox virus usually lethal to rabbits — so set off to do a PhD at the John Curtin Medical School with Professor Frank Fenner who was leading the studies. Some 56 years later and talking from his home in Memphis Tennessee, Webster, in calm and avuncular tones, describes his disappointment at what he found in Canberra.
"The day I arrived — and it was one of those 'never forget days' of life — I sat down with Professor Fenner, in front of his desk as a young student, and he said, 'you're going to work with influenza'."
What did he know about influenza?
"That I was less than thrilled… I was devastated. The pox viruses were the exciting thing; having grown up on a farm and knowing about the rabbit problem in New Zealand, I thought that would be a wonderful thing to work on. But it wasn't to be. That's what happens in life, so you make the most of it."
And make the most of it he did. His honours include membership of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand where, at his former university, the Webster Centre for Infectious Diseases is named after him and wife, Marjorie.
At 86, he still works in infectious diseases at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in the USA where he continues to publish research papers — more than 600 to date — mentor others and run influenza investigations and programmes around the world.
This year, we get a salient reminder of just how deadly the respiratory infection can be.
It's the centenary of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic dubbed the Spanish Flu because Spain, neutral during World War I, was not subject to the same reporting restrictions as most of the Western world meaning newspapers were free to report what a swathe the illness was cutting through the population.
Up to 500 million people were infected by the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, which came in three waves. The first mild, the second ruinous and the third bringing a gradual reduction in severity. From the Arctic to the Pacific Islands and our own South Island, it killed between 50 — 100 million people globally — around 3 — 6 per cent of the world's population. In Samoa, the death toll reached around 8500, about 22 per cent of the population, after the New Zealand ship Talune docked and sick passengers were allowed to disembark.
In this country, in just two devastating months — from October — December, 1918 — we lost 8573, about half as many as the 16,500 New Zealanders killed during the entire four years of WWI. Maori were up to seven times more likely to die.
Public events and gatherings were cancelled, opening hours at businesses and public facilities restricted (or they closed because employees were too sick to staff them) and those who were well enough bravely volunteered to nurse the sick, check on family, friends and neighbours or, if they had a vehicle, deliver food and medicine or transport bodies for burial. Streets were disinfected; those who ventured out sprayed themselves with a solution of zinc sulphate, now known to offer no protection.
It's Webster's work, alongside collaborations with scientists around the globe, that will hopefully save the world from a flu pandemic as catastrophic as 1918. Now he's written a memoir, Flu Hunter: Unlocking the secrets of a virus. The title 'Flu Hunter' is a nod toward the moniker bestowed on him by the Smithsonian magazine in 2006.
The first chapter, devoted to the impact of that outbreak, offers provocative research and thoughts about how the 20th century might have been different if, for example, US President Woodrow Wilson, one of those negotiating the reparations and restrictions post-WWI Germany would face, hadn't become seriously ill with influenza. Wilson was a moderate who didn't want Germany brought to her knees; others, notably France, were less forgiving. But when he recovered from flu, Wilson gave in to all the French demands.
"Germany was beaten into the ground; extremists took charge — the Hitlers of the world — and that led to World War Two. The so-called bird flu, H5N1, we know gets to the brain experimentally of ferrets and mice so I suspect that Wilson was one of a genetically susceptible group of people who permitted the virus to travel to the brain."
What had Webster, born just 13 years after the pandemic, heard about it? Not a lot.
"No one in the family, to my knowledge, died in 1918 but I would be surprised if they didn't. I never dug into the family history to find out," he says. "I knew there'd been the 1918 influenza outbreak and, periodically, there were pandemics and probably the periodic pandemics… well, at that stage, no one really understood where they came from.
"Flu is constantly mutating and varying and the idea at the time was, 'well, are these pandemics that occur just excessive amounts of variation?' but then there was a group of us who realised that there is flu in chicken and ducks and pigs in the world and maybe they came across and so that's where the interest came from."