Doomwatch: Swine Flu

The outbreak in the Americas is starting to look rather serious. At issue is the idea that the virus has managed to sneakily combine not only swine flu and human flu genes, but it has also managed to get some avian flu genes also. Clearly a virus strain with a very interesting history. Avian flu was considered the most likely candidate for the next flu pandemic, so this “threefer” is ringing a whole lot of alarm bells.

The World Health Organization is set to declare the deadly swine flu virus outbreak in Mexico and the U.S. a global concern, potentially prompting travel restrictions, said a person familiar with the matter.

An emergency committee of the WHO in Geneva will declare the outbreak “a public health event of international concern” in a 4 p.m. teleconference today, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting is confidential. In response, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan may raise the level of pandemic alert, which could lead to travel restrictions aimed at curbing the disease’s spread. – Bloomberg News

Given our modern antivirals, some of which have been proven to be effective on this new strain, it is unlikely that the mortality rate would be anything like the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, but it could still be rather nasty, especially if it makes it as far as the densely populated cities of the developing world who cannot afford widespread preventative use of antiviral drugs. Like the Spanish flu it seems to be at its worst in otherwise healthy young adults, unlike more common strains which are mostly a danger to the elderly, infirm, or very young.

So far it has only been found in Mexico and the southern US, but the BBC has quoted a “top US health official” as saying that “the strain of swine flu had spread widely and could not be contained.”. It is only a matter of time before it crops up somewhere else, I expect, most likely elsewhere in Central America.

It is not the most important aspect of this, but the very last thing the global economy needs right now is travel restrictions and the shutting down of public buildings such as schools and libraries. (Mexico City has pretty much shut down everything, and I don’t blame them one bit.) Nice timing, pandemic swine flu.

With any luck, it’ll peter out like the other outbreaks of recent years, but until then, it deserves our attention. I hope the UK is ready to offer all the scientific assistance we can provide.

Probably not the source of the outbreak.

Probably not the source of the outbreak.

I draw odd comfort from seeing that the pro-rapture movement has already started putting out the idea that this is possibly the beginning of the apocalypse. Given their record for being utterly wrong on such predictions is 100%, maybe we’ll get through this alright!

Update: The US Center for Disease Control has just confirmed 2 cases in the state of Kansas, 8 suspected cases in New York, and additional confirmed cases in Texas.

Update: According to MSNBC, there are suspected cases in Minnesota and Massachusetts.

Some thoughts: How common is it for a virus to manage to gather genes from swine flu, avian flu, and human flu before it gets noticed? I would have thought it would have been causing problems when it combined just two of those. Has this happened before?

Update, 1 AM, 26th of April:

Genetic analysis of the virus indicates it is highly unusual: It is a hybrid that resulted from a combination of four different viruses — one that typically infects people, one that originated in North American birds and two from pigs in Europe and Asia. – Washington Post

4 comments to Doomwatch: Swine Flu

  • João Carlos

    I am a biologist, so maybe I can explain something and get you less paranoic.

    “Some thoughts: How common is it for a virus to manage to gather genes from swine flu, avian flu, and human flu before it gets noticed? I would have thought it would have been causing problems when it combined just two of those. Has this happened before?”

    Yes, this happened before. It was the Spanish Flu. It was a combination of genes from human, swine and avian flu.

    Virus are alive. They reproduce. They have mutations. And they RECOMBINE their genes. Well, we too recombine our genes, we call it sex.

    When two strains of virus share the same host, they will recombine, trade genes. Possibly, create a stronger virus. Good for the virus, the virus will reproduce more, it is natural selection on works, Evolution is a fact of life. Bad for the host.

    Virus evolve. Maybe be the better weapon we have against them. A virus that kill the host is not a virus will spread a lot. A virus that NOT kill the host will have more chance to spread to other hosts. So, maybe that explain why there are less deaths at US. We can be lucky and the virus is evolving to a less lethal strain. That happens to any epidemic, the germ will evolve to a less lethal form. It is a common knowledge between the epidemiologists.

    No one is REALLY looking how these virus evolve at the swine and avian population. Some researchs look into, the WHO make a few efforts for look into, but there is no effort for control it. The scientists are starting to look how these virus evolve at the animal populations, so the picture is incomplete. And you can note it is easier to research the farm animals than the wild animals. The picture for the wild animals is almost empty.

    And for the farm animals at the third world countries, where the human health is precarious and there is no money for almost everything, you can be sure that the control is non existent. Only major outbreaks of poultry and swine epidemics will be noted, if that.

  • That was the best response to one of my posts ever! Many thanks for taking the time to help talking me down! I’m technically a biologist too, but one of those softy evolutionary ecologist types, so this is all a bit above my pay-grade!

    A lot more information about how this all works has been coming out today, and it does seem to not be quite so exceptionally unusual a virus as initial reporting had made it sound. I am of course familiar with viruses swapping genes, but it just seemed a bit weird it had bits from several different swine flus from different continents. Perhaps we need new international laws on the movement of livestock.

    Seems it’s still spreading pretty fast, with suspected cases in Spain and Scotland now, but outside of Mexico it does not seem to be particularly virulent. Time will tell, I guess.

  • João Carlos

    “That was the best response to one of my posts ever! Many thanks for taking the time to help talking me down! I’m technically a biologist too, but one of those softy evolutionary ecologist types, so this is all a bit above my pay-grade!”

    Well, there is no softy evolutionary ecology. Evolution built the ecossystems. Species not only evolve, but CO-evolve. Co-evolution is the key for understand why the ecossystems are efficient.

    “A lot more information about how this all works has been coming out today, and it does seem to not be quite so exceptionally unusual a virus as initial reporting had made it sound. I am of course familiar with viruses swapping genes, but it just seemed a bit weird it had bits from several different swine flus from different continents. Perhaps we need new international laws on the movement of livestock.”

    Maybe international laws on the movement of livestock will not be effective. Wild animals move. Wild birds cross continents and oceans, they have migration. So, bird flu is crossing the globe now, migrating birds are spreading it from Asia to Europe, from Europe to North America, from North america to South America. And wild birds will infect poultry. The solution is vacinate poultry against bird flu, frequently, so poultry will not get it from wild birds. Some countries will do it. Other countries have no money for that.

    And from poultry, the virus can move to swine. They live at the same farms. And swine populations have human and swine virus. So, the virus can trade genes at the swine population.

    “Seems it’s still spreading pretty fast, with suspected cases in Spain and Scotland now, but outside of Mexico it does not seem to be particularly virulent. Time will tell, I guess.”

    Diferent from 1917, the human population is urban and not rural and we move using airplanes and not ships. The spread will be faster than the Spanish flu.

    However, today we have WHO and we understand better how virus spread. We can be lucky and not have a pandemic. But only if the governments make their homerwork.

    And USA don’t made yours….

  • Oh, I’m a Brit. Just obsessed with US politics. We seem pretty well prepared over here. I hope so anyway.

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