He was the boy from Balclutha who went to a one-room schoolhouse and played hooker in the First XV. And now Professor Robert G. Webster, 85, lives in Memphis, Tennessee, as one of the world's greatest and most celebrated virologists — and is watching his life's work come to pass in the form of Covid-19.
Webster established that fatal influenzas, including the coronavirus, are spread from wild animals to humans. His team identified the avian strain of H5N1, or bird flu. In 2018, Otago University Press published his actually quite exciting memoir of his scientific breakthroughs. In the final chapter of The Flu Hunter, he wrote, "The question uppermost in my mind ... is whether another pandemic with a deadly and disruptive impact on society is possible. The answer is yes: It is not only possible, it is just a matter of time." I called him at his home in Memphis, and he said, "This is that time. Indeed it is." Webster didn't claim any measure of prescience. He was simply stating that this was bound to happen.
"Politicians have been ignoring science, particularly in the United States. And so Mother Nature has been sending a message, as it were. And that message is, 'Do you have to have the angel of death coming to really take notice?' And I think you do. At the moment, it is drawing the world's attention to the possibility that many people are going to die."
The angel of death! It was something a journalist might write; I actually felt jealous that he'd got there first, and described Covid-19 in such lurid terms.
The difference is that Webster knows what he's talking about. He works in infectious diseases at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. He has studied the Spanish influenza of 1918, which killed at the least estimate 24 million people, and his book The Flu Hunter also deals with subsequent pandemics in 1957 (1.5 million dead) and 1962 (1 million.) I prodded Webster to estimate the number of lives that Covid-19 would end. He said, "Hopefully it's going to be less than a million."
In his book The Flu Hunter, he speculated about exactly this kind of pandemic going loose in the world, and wrote, "Millions of people would die before we could bring it under control." He took a deep breath when I read that out to him. "Yes, well," he said. "You can quote that if you wish."
Webster was more interested in questions of virology. Such as: "Is the virus in Italy a subvariant of the original that is particularly virulent? Mutations are appearing every day but we don't know the significance of them." And: "The big question every virologist in the world is asking is, will there be a second wave? Korea, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan — they've done all the social distancing, and they've been successful at reducing the cases. But it could be that the virus will come back in again, and away it goes. We don't know."
Webster has added his name to a letter about to be sent to the New York Times, signed by eminent scientists around the world, urging the US to hasten trials on a vaccine.
He said, "They say it's going to take a year or more to get a vaccine. Or a year and a half. We've got to cut some of the red tape through safety testing and get it out there. Hopefully we can get it out in less than a year. Maybe 10 months. Six months would be a dream."
As well as a vaccine, Webster said scientists in China are right now working on ways to immunise victims of the virus. He explained, "You take people who have recovered from the disease, bleed them, fractionate their blood into gamma globulin, and use those antibodies to inject into people who are infected.
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"That provides protection. It's passive immunisation, and it will save your life. That could be one of the first effective ways to deal with it while the vaccines are being studied."
He was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about efforts to combat the virus. But he was angry — livid, in fact — that nothing had been done about it in the years before Covid-19 entered the world. He said, "It's really very disturbing that the world has not taken notice of what scientists have been saying through the World Health Organisation for years and years and years. We said, 'It's time to be prepared'. But the politicians of the world have not listened to us. And now we are paying the price."
I asked, "How could we have prepared for a virus that didn't exist?"
He shouted, "Do we have enough ventilators? Do we have enough protective clothing? Do we have enough masks? Bloody hell. We don't have these things.
"There should have been stockpiles of these straightforward things. Like you stockpile ammunition for a war. People talk about this being a war. Well, where's the ammunition to fight this bloody war? We have to rush around now and get it made. Come on!"
And then he apologised for his outburst, and said it was nice to hear a Kiwi voice. Webster and his family moved to Memphis on January 1, 1968. He remembered his one-room school was in Pukapito, 10 miles (16km) up the river from Balclutha. "My father was married twice, and I'm one of 13 in the family," he said. "You learn to be competitive."