With all the concern swirling around the swine flu outbreak in Mexico, I decided to check in with San Diego’s renowned flu fighter at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research.
At first glance, this swine flu doesn’t seem to have the characteristics of one that could create a massive, worldwide pandemic, said Robert Liddington, director of Burnham’s Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Center.
“It’s not the big one,” said Liddington, who in February shared in a breakthrough discovery of antibodies that promise to significantly reduce the threat of future pandemics. “But it really shows the potential of a dangerous virus emerging literally on our doorstep.”
Although Liddington said he still needs to learn a lot more about the virus before he could make a definitive conclusion, what he has seen so far leads him to believe that this flu is not that virulent, and likely can be treated with anti-viral medications like Tamiflu. The most important thing, he said, is to get medications down to rural areas of Mexico and get the people there good medical treatment.
This flu is an “H1” flu he said, referring to the type of hemagglutinin molecules that are packed tightly on the outer surface of the flu virus. And though similar in structure to the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed tens of millions worldwide, this one doesn’t seem like it has the ability to overtake the immune systems of healthy people with access to healthcare, especially those who got the flu shot this year.
He pointed out that the vast majority of those who died of the Spanish flu were not killed by the flu per se, but of a secondary bacterial pneumonia, which was untreatable in the pre-antibiotic era. He suspects that a similar phenomenon might be happening now in rural Mexico, where there have been reports of young, supposedly healthy, people being felled by the virus.
“I’m wondering if what we are seeing is the same thing (as the Spanish flu),” Liddington said. “We are seeing a group, who are relatively poor pig farmers. My hunch is that they are probably dying of secondary infections.”
What most concerns Liddington about this flu is that it looks like a combination of human, swine and bird flues, what he calls a “mongrel virus.” Such a virus could be dangerous, he said, because it “has elements we’ve never seen before.”
That being said, Liddington is confident that the antibodies he and his colleagues recently discovered could knock this flu, and many others like it, out.
In February, Liddington, along with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, announced that they have created synthetic human antibodies that attack influenza viruses, and could end up significantly reducing the threat of future flu pandemics. Check here for my story on the discovery.
It is too late, he said, to get the therapies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and into production for this outbreak, but not for the next one. He said companies were already contacting his team, and now they are even more interested.
“There is not much we can do at this moment,” he said. “But if the political will was there, we could get this thing moving very fast.”