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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Two weeks later, Hultin was on his way--one 73-year-old man with a sleeping bag, a carry-on bag and two duffels full of equipment. He traveled solo and avoided publicity so as not to raise too much fuss among Brevig's villagers. By the afternoon of Aug. 20, he and a local crew had begun digging, and they eventually produced a trench 6 ft. wide, 27 ft. long and 7 ft. deep. Hultin came across several bare skeletons before he hit pay dirt: the well-preserved body of a 30-year-old woman so obese that her fat had insulated her organs from the effects of decades of frost and thaw. He took both lungs, sliced them into thin strips and carefully packed them for shipment. Hultin named the body "Lucy," a nod to the prehistoric Lucy who shed so much light on human origins.

Hultin expected to wait months to hear of any results, but Taubenberger called within a few weeks. He had found fragments of the 1918 virus in Hultin's Lucy. Taubenberger and Reid had meanwhile recovered yet another sample of 1918 virus from tissues in the Armed Forces annex. Taken together, the three samples put to rest any doubt that Taubenberger's lab had indeed found and sequenced key portions of the original Spanish-flu virus.

Hultin says he was struck by the uncanny timing of his journey, which took place just as a strange virus with great pandemic potential was emerging in Hong Kong. "I was very apprehensive," he says. "I was waiting for it to come--and it didn't." But another pandemic, he believes, is inevitable. He has given his wife instructions on what to do to survive it: retreat to their mountain cabin until the onslaught passes. It was a tactic, he knows, that was successfully used in 1918 by a village just 30 miles from Brevig. Its elders, after learning of the advancing plague, stationed armed guards at the village perimeter with orders to shoot anyone who tried to enter. The village survived unscathed.


Hong Kong, in the meantime, had begun to relax. From August into November, nothing happened. No new cases appeared. In postmortems on the first case, researchers congratulated themselves on how well the global flu-surveillance system had worked. Some even suggested that it worked too well, that the avian flu had been discovered only because the surveillance network was looking for such events and that isolated bird-to-human infections had probably happened before and gone undetected.

On Nov. 8, Lim's virology lab got its usual load of new specimens to analyze, including one from a two-year-old boy admitted the day before to Queen Mary Hospital. Her lab applied the ordinary WHO reagents for H3 and H1, but just as in May, got no reaction. This time Lim tried an H5 reagent supplied by the CDC. And got a positive reading.

By now, however, the patient had already been discharged, well on his way to full recovery. In fact, he had been only mildly ill and was admitted because of a heart condition that made him vulnerable to even routine infections.

"So now I think, 'This cannot be,'" says Lim. Perhaps it was contamination, after all; maybe this H5 reading had been caused by the presence of the H5 she had grown and tested in May. She asked the hospital to send over anything that remained of the material originally swabbed from the boy. This too tested positive for H5. "Now I'm worried," she says, "because after six months it came out again."

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