The Flu Hunters

When a mysterious and deadly flu virus struck Hong Kong last year, medical detectives from around the world, fearing a repeat of the 1918 epidemic that killed more than 20 million, sprang into action.

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It would be easy to dismiss the Hong Kong Incident as just a one-time quirk of blood and protein. But the U.S.'s leading flu experts seem unwilling to do so. This became particularly apparent at the annual meeting of the FDA Vaccine Advisory Panel, convened two weeks ago in Bethesda, Md., to decide what flu strains should be targeted for next year's flu vaccine. Ordinarily these meetings are routine, if not downright boring. But this year the committee devoted half the day to the Hong Kong outbreak.

For Webster, it was a striking moment--the first time he had ever been invited to the meeting, a point he made clear in the opening moments of his talk. Equally striking, no one on the panel tried to minimize the potential danger of the new avian virus. Far from it. In a vote the FDA had not even requested, the committee unanimously agreed to move ahead to develop a vaccine against H5, even take it through clinical trials.

Shortly before the vote, Webster was asked his opinion. He believes the Hong Kong Incident may have given the world early warning of more H5 outbreaks to come. "We have a window of opportunity," he told the assembled scientists. "Let's do it now."

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