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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The hard work was just beginning for Reid. She would spend the next year searching through the samples for a snip of 1918 RNA.


As Wilina Lim drove back to her laboratory with Jan De Jong, the Dutch researcher, she considered his question about the nature of the virus she had sent him. Clearly he already knew what it was. She thought a moment, then guessed the virus was probably an H3, common in humans, that had changed sufficiently to evade detection.

"No," De Jong told her. "It was H5."

Lim was startled. "I'm not a vet," she says. "I don't know much about influenza in animals." But she had never heard of H5 infecting humans. For it to do so now was surprising. Even impossible.

And suddenly she understood why De Jong had felt it necessary to come in person to Hong Kong, why he had waited until now to tell her about the virus. He suspected that the H5 had not really come from human patients but was the result of laboratory contamination. Everyone knew that her lab was situated close to Shortridge's and that Shortridge worked with avian viruses. Moreover, this was Hong Kong, where poultry stalls with live chickens could be found in the same neighborhoods as five-star hotels. "I think he came to Hong Kong to have a look-see if it was a sloppy laboratory," says Lim. She knew his concern was justified, but still it offended her. She is known for her buoyancy, but at this moment her expression hardened. "I knew it was not a contaminant," she says, "because I know my lab."

And soon De Jong was also convinced. That night he spoke with Albert Osterhaus, chairman of the virology department at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, where virologist Eric Claas had analyzed the suspect virus using a panel of reagents derived from flu strains isolated and maintained by Webster. Claas had first determined that the virus was H5N1, well before the CDC and Mill Hill. At the outset even he did not believe it. An H5 infection in humans was unheard of. He too assumed the H5 was a contaminant.

Meanwhile Osterhaus had called Webster in Memphis to learn more about H5. Only then, in that phone call, did the human-flu research community at last learn of the earlier outbreak of chicken flu on the three Hong Kong farms; and only then did Webster and Shortridge learn of the first human case--even though Shortridge's laboratory and Lim's are housed in adjacent buildings.

Webster already had the virus in his collection, its genetic structure detailed, its heritage mapped. He recalls, with obvious delight, how he told Osterhaus, "Abe, I have the precursor of this virus in my laboratory."

For Webster, it was an exciting moment. "The situation in Hong Kong is what I've been predicting throughout my career," he says. For years, he contends, people have dismissed avian flu "as a problem of chickens--who cares?" He revels in his newfound credibility. "Finally," he says, laughing, "at the end of my career, the chickens have come home to roost."

He concedes, however, that he was startled when Osterhaus told him about the three-year-old boy who had died on May 21, the day after Lim received his specimen. Webster also wondered whether the H5 was merely a contaminant. Osterhaus assured him it was not. After the call, Webster taped a note to the wall over his desk: H5 IN A CHILD!


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