In which I remember where I was when I heard – or possibly not

The tricky thing about history is that it can only be pinned down in retrospect. For this reason, it is often difficult to tell when something significant has actually happened. Few witnessing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, for example, would have predicted that it would lead to a devastating four-year conflict and the deaths of over 15 million people worldwide. But things have a way of leading from one to another, and it is impossible to predict whether a local instability will collapse in on itself, or instead escalate beyond recognition.

Scientists, I think, are trained to be sceptical about major events in general, and the coverage of these events in the media in particular. Thus far the typical responses of my learned colleagues to the news of possible pandemic influenza have ranged from shrugs of disinterest to humorous quips, but very few feel that it will come to anything much. It is almost as if magnitude of the press response has reinforced their suspicion that nothing could possibly be as bad as advertised.

So, are we witnessing another SARS fizzle-out, or the birth of a devastating plague that will be recorded in textbooks for millennia to come? I can almost see it inscribed: In 2009, the first year of the Second Great Depression, the Swine Flu Epidemic wiped out a third of the earth’s population.

This is not to say that I am panicking. Not at all. My biggest concern at the moment is that there will be a lock-down on travel just for precautionary reasons and I will not be able to come home from my sabbatical. I consider this highly unlikely, but with the lag-time of incubation periods, I also think that it is too soon to dismiss this concern as ‘overreaction’.

So, where was I when I heard about the 2009 Swine Flu Epidemic?

I was alone in a tissue culture suite early on Saturday morning at the Advanced Light Microscopy Facility of the European Molecular Biology Laboratories in Heidelberg. Sun was streaming through the window, and my cells were looking particularly healthy. I was pleasantly tired from the run through the forest from my hotel: my hands were still damp from exertion, so I recall that it was difficult to get my nitrile gloves on. The radio was set to the TC station of local choice, 99.9 FM, the sort of platform that plays the same Top-40 hits over and over with the occasional pause for a barrage of largely unintelligibly German banter. It is certainly not a venue for serious news of any sort.

Which is why, after about the fourth repetition of a spate of exposition, I started to pick out the few words I did recognize: Mexico. Schweinen. Gezondheid. I had already put two and two together by the time the DJ finally pronounced the term that confirmed my suspicions: Influenza. A quick check on the BBC website solidified my knowledge.

On the run back to the hotel, I particularly remember that the morning air had an unusual quality of lucidity; the greenness of the leaves, the smell of ferns and the sound of water spilling over stones reminded me of the transience of life on this planet, and how little we are in control of anything.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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94 Responses to In which I remember where I was when I heard – or possibly not

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    /stocks up on ammo.
    Anyone so much as grunts at me they’re going to come down with heavy metal poisoning.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Remind me not to come round and borrow a cup of sugar.

  3. Eva Amsen says:

    I think I read about Swine Flu on Twitter (kind of like this ) but it took a long time for me to register that it was something worth worrying about. Actually, I’m still not worrying, but it did remind me that I have SARS stories left to tell/blog, so I’ll probably surf along on the hype. I’m horrible.
    I keep typing “fly” instead of “flu” and spell check isn’t picking it up. I think I fixed them all. If not, you know what I meant.

  4. Åsa Karlström says:

    hm, I got out of work (was in lab looking at my mice infected with influenza) and drove home for a long weekend without work (or so I thought at the time). The NPR news on a Friday early evening were quite informative and not too paniccy… the Swedish news on Saturday spelled ‘doom’ a bit more.
    Me? I just wondered if it was an [further evolved] reassortment virus and whether or not the discussion of “who is going to get the antivirals since we don’t have enough” was going to surface. Of course, the Swedish media mentioned it in the first report (‘there is a stock pile of antivirals sufficient for 20% of the population’) ….
    I guess we will see more in the future days to come. And Jenny, I hope you can return in time – with air plane and all.

  5. Cristian Bodo says:

    The Second Great Depression…the Rise of Twitter…Pirates marauding the oceans once again…and now that ominous sign that Richard keeps seeing over the London skyline and no one can explain satisfactorily! 2009 is looking positively apocalyptic indeed. I fear that this may be the strain that wipes us all.

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    I was slumped on the couch when I heard; my senses dulled by the exhaustion of another long week.
    People have been joking about Twitter (myself included, and XKCD) but I think it is emblematic of an important facet of modern life that could be critical as the outbreak plays out. What is interesting about the emerging situation is the speed of dissemination of information, which I think could have huge impact in mitigating the severity of any pandemic. Compared to 1918 or 1957 or 1968, the technology we have for communication is astounding. Of course the volume of air travel is also greater – hence (probably) the fact that the virus has already broken out of Mexico.

  7. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Stephen, I was thinking exactly this earlier: yes, the globalization that brings us air travel makes viral dissemination easier, yet this same globilization brings the alert faster, and makes nations more vigilant. Honestly, I suspect that on balance, globalization is on the side of containment, all things considered.
    I keep seeing in my mind that emblematic image of the slumped knight on a horse, trundling into a Dark Ages village, dead of the Plague.
    Asa, the UK has enough Tamiflu and Relenza stockpiled for 50% of the population, which I suspect is enough. Does anyone know if the World Influenza Centre now has enough time to design and prepare a vaccine ready in time for flu season, or is it already too late? I guess the question is, are Mexicans dying of the swine flu whereas the later cases harbor viruses that have recombined with human flu, which may be less pathogenic?
    My other major question is, I received the H1N1 flu jab this year. Can it offer basal protection even if there has been antigenic shift?

  8. Frank Norman says:

    Well, it has been an interesting day. I was vaguely aware of the developing situation in Mexico over the weekend, and thought I’d better check it out when I got into work this morning.
    I was not surprised to see that two of our virologists (Alan Hay from the World Influenza Centre and John McCauley from the Virology Division) were featured all over the media commenting on the Mexican outbreak, so I started putting together a news item for the website, taking some information from the stories in the news. That was a bad mistake. It took me sometime to doublecheck the facts with our man McCauley as he was swamped with the world’s media organisations beating a path to his door. I thought it was overkill when I was told that someone from the MRC Press Office had been sent up to Mill Hill to help cope with the press enquiries. Then I overheard her on the phone, listing a punishing schedule of interviews with various news organisations, and I realised this was a real media storm.
    Eventually I caught up with John and got the lowdown. No, he had not received any samples of the US virus yet but yes, they were on their way and yes, he had been doing preparatory work to get ready to analyse them. That was basically all I put in the news item plus a few links to other sites. Sadly the MRC news item went live just too late for me to include before I left. No doubt there will be more news items on this topic before too long, though.

  9. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Frank, you are reporting live from the veritable hot seat! I have a lot of time for the World Influenza Centre and I have fingers crossed that they’re prepared for the scientific (as opposed to PR) challenges ahead. How’s the mood up there, generally? Upbeat?

  10. Frank Norman says:

    Jenny – yes, it’s kind of exciting to see an ITN van parked outside, and cameras lounging by the sofas in reception. But, also very sobering. It’s too early to judge what will happen of course. I was searching the BBC website earlier, to find the discussion on the Today programme this morning, and it was interesting to see similar stories about pandemic flu threats listed from 2004 and 2006.
    The BBC’s Paper Monitor commended John McCauley’s measured tones, contrasting it with the screaming headlines of the tabloids. I think “measured” probably sums up the mood quite well.

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I like ‘measured’ — it’s ‘dismissive’ that I’m not too keen on.
    I remember the 2006 dead-swans-in-Scotland/bird-flu migration incident, as I was writing freelance news at the time. But that was nowhere close to the severity of what we have so far. I don’t think you can compare them.

  12. Richard Wintle says:

    Hm, yes, some folks were spooked in this neck of the woods in 2006… I think we bought a freezer, just in case we needed to stock the house up with a couple of weeks’ worth of food.
    Ok, ok, we needed a freezer anyway.
    SARS was worrying (and it really was the “front lines” in many ways here in Toronto – not as much as in, say, China though). But your point about “how little we are in control” is well taken. And worrying.
    And, peripherally related to RPG’s comment about stocking up on ammo, there have already been travel advisories about Mexico, due to the rather highly armed nature of certain drug cartels there. This latest influenza story just reinforces my desire not to visit, which is unfortunate, but pragmatic I think.

  13. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The UK is already recommending that people not fly to the US or Mexico unless absolutely necessary.

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    There is quite a useful summary on Vincent Rancaniello’s blog. He make the point that the flu season is nearly at an end in the Northern Hemisphere, which may help dampen the spread there. On the flip-side, it is only just beginning in the Southern half of the globe…

  15. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for the link, Stephen.
    But I understood from an epidemiologist friend of mine that it was the next Northern flu season when it might get really bad (i.e winter 2009). Did I get that wrong?

  16. Cath Ennis says:

    And I was already getting dirty looks for coughing in public, so imagine the reaction I got on the bus yesterday. I feel like getting a t-shirt made that says “it’s just a cold, I’ve never even been to Mexico”.

  17. Craig Rowell says:

    Here is a link to help you follow along. Don’t know if this will be bird flu 2.0 or something real.

  18. Stephen Curry says:

    I think Vincent was only writing about the short term – your epidemiologist friend could be right about late 2009.

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Craig, I really love those maps. Unfortunately the internet connection in this hotel isn’t robust enough to play with all the animated features. (But it’s given me a great idea for a small detail in the novel I’m working on now, which features as an element a virus spread forecaster model that one of the characters is using in a fictitious ‘Department of Theoretical Epidemiology’ — in Mill Hlll, appropriately enough.)

  20. Craig Rowell says:

    Jennifer – glad to help.

  21. Åsa Karlström says:

    Asa, the UK has enough Tamiflu and Relenza stockpiled for 50% of the population, which I suspect is enough. Does anyone know if the World Influenza Centre now has enough time to design and prepare a vaccine ready in time for flu season
    If you mean the next flu season… well, as far as I remember they usually need about 6 months to prepare the vaccine (the big stocks in eggs for the world). Usually they pick the strains looking at the Southern Hemisphere and Asia to see how the flu season from last year changed during the time of the year…
    However, a smaller batch of vaccine against this swine strain could be available in much shorter time. (not for everyone but for the people in the affected areas). I am sure they will discuss a lot of this at the Influenza Vaccine conference (starts this week).
    I guess the question is, are Mexicans dying of the swine flu whereas the later cases harbor viruses that have recombined with human flu, which may be less pathogenic?
    The swine flu strains that are present in the pig population in several places (US for example and some in Asia) are reassortment viruses – with genes from both human and pigs and sometimes birds. It is that thing that the pig is a wonderful animal to mix different virus strains in…. they seem to be less temperature sensitive among other things. And people work close to pigs and then the mixing can begin (not to mention when small farms have both poultry and pigs and children working with the animals… mixing pot! Part of why the avian flu could turn more pathogenic for people to people transmission with some help from the mixing and chaning.)
    I received the H1N1 flu jab this year. Can it offer basal protection even if there has been antigenic shift?
    I think the question would be more if the human H1N1 strain in the vaccine gives protection against the H1N1 variant in the swine flu strain… I guess we will find out when it is tested in lab?!

  22. steffi suhr says:

    You could almost say I’m ignoring the swine flu (even though I am following the news), because I’m a tad worried that it might interfere with my husband coming back next Tuesday… I’m hoping things will have ‘calmed down’ somewhat by then (probably completely irrational).

  23. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Where is he coming from? Fingers crossed for you, Steffi.
    Thanks for that explanation, Asa. And I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the influenza vaccine conference you mention – I suspect the excitement in the air will be positively novelistic.

  24. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny; you’re welcome! I feel happy I have learned things from my post doc so I can help with questions.
    The conference will probably be buzzing 😉 I won’t be there but will most likely get good updates…. at least afterwards.
    Steffi, they haven’t said anything about closing airports (yet) Only recommended not flying to Mexico and US if you don’t have to. I am tryin not to think about that trip I have planned to Houston later on in May….. I’m going to go with “it will be a nice trip” 😉

  25. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ah, but Houston is notorious for having a problem…

  26. Kristi Vogel says:

    Ah, but Houston is notorious for having a problem
    No, astronauts Swigert and Lovell aboard Apollo 13, not NASA Mission Control in Houston, had the problem. The quote (slightly incorrect) is Houston, we have a problem.
    Though Houston does have plenty of problems to be sure – traffic and flooding being two such.

  27. Jennifer Rohn says:

    You know, I actually know the correct quote, of course, and even as I was typing the above (as a sort of joke, not quite aligned but still defensible – or so I hoped) I was thinking, how much do you want to bet someone is going to correct me? Because that’s the sort of geeky pedantic salon this is.
    What with pandemics, UFOs and Wild-Schwein on the lunch menu (it actually was!), it’s good to have some predictability in life.

  28. Eva Amsen says:

    Oh, I forgot to say: it’s spelled “gesundheit” in German. But I don’t mind the Dutch spelling, and I think people knew what it meant anyway.

  29. steffi suhr says:

    Jenny, he’ll be flying from Denver on Monday…

  30. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Eva! Hoe zeg je ‘doh!’ in het nederlands? I cannot tell you how many German words I keep spelling (and attempting to say) in Dutch. It’s like the part of my brain responsible for me knowing Dutch can’t let go of those sectors. I have the same problems with Spanish and Italian. You’d think the similarities would be helpful but I wonder sometimes if it does more harm than good to know a similar language to the one you are trying to learn.
    Steffi, Denver should be well off the radar, one hopes?? My family all live near there, so I hope it stays that way. But best of luck.

  31. steffi suhr says:

    Heh – Eva, I resisted the urge. You gave in 🙂

  32. Richard P. Grant says:

    I only made a flippant comment because I had nothing sensible to say.
    However, I’d like to remind people of something.

  33. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Omigod. I think I am, actually, eating a Berliner. As in Ich bin ein Berliner, the first of so many glorious Yank language faux pas throughout history. I thought I was selecting just a common or garden variety doughnut at the canteen, but turns out it’s full of yummy jam! \o/

  34. Richard P. Grant says:

    Blast. Now I need a clean keyboard.

  35. Kristi Vogel says:

    Yes, I suppose it’s predictably geeky to be pedantic about historical STEM-related quotes on a STEM blog site. Wouldn’t be the first time.
    Airport restrooms at LAX are being disinfected every half-hour, according to the California Governator, but no restrictions on travellers from Mexico as yet. Seems likely that other major US airports will follow suit. However, you can lead a virally-infected person to a disinfected bathroom, but you can’t make him (her) wash his (her) hands.

  36. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Are you serious, Kristi? Wow. That is so, like, trying to mow a lawn with a pair of tweezers. Or actually like trying to mow a lawn with a spoon, as last time I checked flu wasn’t spread by the fecal-oral route. People are a lot more isolated in a restroom than they are jostling around on the concourse. Though (pondering further) I guess you touch more doorknobs in a restroom than on the concourse.
    (Note to self: sugar in Berliner goes straight to head, inspires incoherent babbling. Avoid when discoursing in public.)

  37. Kristi Vogel says:

    The Berliner sounds lovely, Jenny. I have only a granola bar as temptation this morning.
    Door handles and the handles of shopping/luggage trolleys are the subjects of my germphobic nightmares. Airport restrooms, at least those for women, tend to have waiting lines, in my recent experience. Plenty of sneezing/coughing close contact potential there, I think …but disinfecting the surfaces of a restroom ain’t gonna help.

  38. Richard P. Grant says:

    No chocolate or candy here. Had to make do with English strawberries from the stall by Warren Street station.
    Damn but they were good; a quid for eight large ones.
    (Stop sniggering, Gee.)

  39. Jennifer Rohn says:

    This is maybe going to sound stupid, but if everyone just wore a mask and then washed their hands on getting home and taking the mask off, wouldn’t that solve everything?

  40. Åsa Karlström says:

    Kristi> I hope the flooding at least will be gone in late May… traffic sounds like less likely to be avoided.
    Jenny> yes… it is that geeky correction place 😉
    I’m on the fence with the restroom thingy. It might help a bit, but mostly I think these “precautions”* are to let people know we care about this and are putting things into place. Don’t worry” then again, I might like the government too much 😉
    *when it comes to remove spread of MRSA though it works… skin contact on the toilet seats and all. I guess the best way of not spreading influenza would be those “don’t sneeze over other people” and “don’t touch yourself in the face”?!

  41. Kristi Vogel says:

    @ Åsa: If you enjoy art museums (and you have time), I recommend the Menil Collection on Sul Ross. Excellent permanent collection, and wonderful exhibitions; I saw an exhibit of Joseph Cornell’s collages there several years ago. Also, if you like Abstract Expressionism, the Rothko Chapel is nearby.
    Flooding potential in Houston is a protean phenomenon, however.

  42. Åsa Karlström says:

    Kristi> with the risk of sounding extremely daft/geeky/boring/undereducated … I am not a fan of abstract art – it confuses me to no end. (A proper painting from the 17/18/19th century of nature/people/stuff works though… no confusion, I’m a simple girl.) THen again, after looking at the web site and googling Rothko chapel I think it will have to be a visit. Anything that’s compared to Le Corbusier is definetly worth a visit!
    Thanks for the tip!! Now, I just need to find a hotel and finilise the rest of the trip 🙂

  43. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I enjoyed the recent Rothco exhibition in London – there were pictures of the Chapel and I was really curious to know what it looks like for real.

  44. Kristi Vogel says:

    @ Åsa: The Menil Collection is pretty diverse, so there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy a visit, even if you forgo the Rothko Chapel.
    Up until very recently, I dismissed the entire Dutch still life genre from the 17th and 18th centuries as “boring”. Then, in February, I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge with a friend who is very knowledgeable about art history. She gave me a genuine appreciation for the still life paintings, with their symbolism and beautiful renderings of insects, snails, fruit, flowers, leaves, tableware, etc.
    @ Jenny: The Rothko triptych panels in the Chapel do not photograph well at all. The way to appreciate them is to sit in the Chapel when the light outdoors is, well, protean (not unusual in Houston), such as a partly cloudy day when a front is moving through. The triptych will change, and change again … you think you know the colors, and then they’ll change. There’s also a lovely Barnett Newman obelisk sculpture in a reflecting pool outside the Chapel.

  45. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ah – from the BBC news website:
    “Available scientific evidence does not support the general wearing of facemasks by those who are not ill whilst going about their normal activities”
    – Department of Health spokesman
    I wonder why not? I still don’t see how it could not help.

  46. Richard P. Grant says:

    I suppose that’s a weasel way of saying ‘we haven’t actually done the experiment’? Or maybe it has been done, and virus particles slip through standard masks? HEPA masks won’t be cheap, I imagine.

    Hoe zeg je ‘doh!’ in het nederlands?

    Should I be worried that I can understand that?

  47. Frank Norman says:

    There’s some discussion of face masks on the Science Insider website:
    Only certain types of mask (ie N95) provide any protection. Most people are not using this type of mask. Second, masks have to fit properly and be used correctly… most people do not know how to properly test their masks.

  48. Jennifer Rohn says:

    In the same news article where it says masks aren’t useful for the general populace, it says the UK is scrambling to get together enough masks for health care professionals. Logically this sounds like there are masks that work, or they wouldn’t bother.
    One shouldn’t rule out mask use just because people right now aren’t using the right ones and/or don’t know how to do it. The point is if you have a containment plan, you get the right sort of masks out there and you teach people how to use them. I bet this would indeed be under consideration if the strain that got out of Mexico was actually lethal.

  49. Frank Norman says:

    And just seen something on face masks from the (UK) Health protection Agency:
    The wearing of facemasks by healthy individuals who are not involved in caring for people who are ill (i.e. the general public) is not recommended by the HPA. However, it is recognised that some people may choose to do so. The available scientific evidence does not suggest that this is an effective preventative measure.

  50. Richard P. Grant says:

    The point is if you have a containment plan, you get the right sort of masks out there and you teach people how to use them.
    That would require a political act of will, wouldn’t it?
    I do sometimes wonder about the government’s (not necessarily the current administration — they’re all the same) ability to plan for such crises and actually implement something. Getting a minister to go along to the mask-making factory and saying, ‘ho, we need 60 million N95 masks now; here’s some cash’ would be a good move, I guess.
    Our problem, as a nation, is that a cup of tea seems to fix most things.

  51. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The available scientific evidence does not suggest that this is an effective preventative measure.
    I am not satisfied with the logic of this answer. If a mask is good enough to prevent a nurse from catching the virus from an infected patient who is actively shedding virus, why isn’t effective at preventing a non-healthcare professional from a viral encounter on public transport?

  52. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny: I don’t get it either. THen again, I would assume that a mask would “stop some of the virus from reaching into your mouth is someone close to you sneezes”. Clearly, I have no evidence nor data to support this, only my own gut feeling … and it’s all about the numbers, 10^5 virus particles or 10^10 might make a very big difference.
    I guess what they do think is that you need both gloves, a real mask that fits properly and snuggly around your face and has smaller pores? Then again, as stated earlier in the thread – those masks aren’t available for the public yet?
    One other reason might be that the government views the use of masks in public as an extreme measure that increases panic in people.. and as we all know, panicked people make bad consumers (yes, there is some kind of that paranoia going around – after all, it is a nice diversion from the black news about job losses and economic downfall) and if the masks aren’t goo for protection maybe this also increases the transmission since people stop taking other precautions if they think the masks are helping?

  53. Eva Amsen says:

    Deja-vu from SARS time!
    The masks don’t work if they’re not used properly. Someone with a beard wearing a mask – won’t work. Wrong mask – won’t work. Fitted wrong – won’t work. And you’d end up with people feeling safe when they’re actually not safe at all.

  54. Åsa Karlström says:

    Eva: it was that last part that I remembered from the big conference on transmission and “how to we stop an epedemic/pandemic” …. everyone has to shave I guess 😉

  55. Eric Michael Johnson says:

    I find it rather remarkable that few media outlets (in the US anyway) have picked up on the likely cause of the outbreak. We’ve been creating the perfect delivery system for virulent disease in our backyard and didn’t pay any attention.
    See here for more.

  56. Henry Gee says:

    @ Richard. I’m not sniggering. At least, not any more.
    @ EMJ: I enjoyed your blog and left a comment there.I am still unsure of the connection between the mode of agriculture (intensive or otherwise) and the emergence of a new strain of flu.
    @ All: What I still don’t quite get is any sense of the seriousness of this outbreak in terms of its likely consequences. The problem is trying to see through the scatter of sensationalist headlines, and the feeling that we’ve been through all of this before, when SARS, avian flu, even Ebola, were supposed to come along and wipe us all out, and the thought that someone might possibly have seen a swan sneezing in Fife would cause news editors to re-cast the front page. As a fellow commuter opined on the train from Cromer to Norwich this morning – we do enjoy frighjtening ourselves with prognostications of DOOM.

  57. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I enjoyed the blog post that you linked to. But as a former virologist, I would not close the case just yet: just because intensive farming seems the most likely cause doesn’t mean it might not be something else entirely. It should be investigated vigorously, sure, but we need to keep our minds open for all the possibilities. From my limited understanding of emerging infectious disease epidemiology, there are cases of epidemics that have been known to start from an animal-to-human jump under fairly isolated conditions, right?
    Re masks – I take your collective points, above, but reckon that if someone sneezed on the Tube and you had a mask on, even if imperfect, it could block a lot of aerosals. The infected person wouldn’t produce as much, and the potential recipients would encounter fewer viruse particles. I mean, the WHO is recommending using tissues when you sneeze, so a mask can’t be entirely useless. I think you’re spot on, Asa, about the power of the imagery of the population wearing masks. It sends a terrible PR message about your nation.

  58. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’m now envisioning sneezing while wearing a mask, and am utterly squicked.
    Stories of vomiting in your G-suit need not apply.

  59. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Henry, all I can think of is the little boy who cried Wolf. The one time we make no fuss, it could be the big one and we’d be completely unprepared. I’d rather know about it and have it all come to nothing than ignore a potential catastrophe. Yeah, even if that means suffering through the media frenzy – CNN is the only English station here and I can tell you categorically that you would rather put your own eye out than watch their excruciatingly earnest/morbid/jolly swine flu coverage.

  60. Åsa Karlström says:

    Richard> It’s enough to do that in a BSL2 facility thank you very much. aweful is that word you are looking for. and gross.
    Henry> What I still don’t quite get is any sense of the seriousness of this outbreak in terms of its likely consequences.
    with the risk of sounding trite, I think it is mainly because it is hard to evaluate it at the moment. The facts that line up for the scare are there,
    people to people (p2p) transmission
    non-human (in this case swine) influenza infecting people and then p2p…
    deaths from the mainly swine influenza strain
    reassortment virus changing more genes and getting more virulent (if this is what has happened… and might happen again?)
    and a question if the current vaccine is effecive towards this strain or not. Just because it is H1N1 doesn’t guarentee it, especially not since it is different origin of the HA genes.
    I agree with Jenny that if it turns out that this is it then the countries and WHO etc need to have covered their bases from the start in order to be able to stop the spreading even more. If it isn’t, it kind of gives a good indication on how well we are prepared for when it comes.
    Eric> I am not sure I agree with you in regards to this “making of the viruses”. the same argument can be used in smaller back yard farms with both poultry and pigs and humans handling them, so not only the large industrial farms with poultry.
    As much one could argue that the “ecological/organic” pig farming in several countries make the pigs be outdoors and interact with free living birds etc. This has been seen in several countries and is where the source of the isolated H5N1 human fatalities can be seen too – humans interacting with live poultry and then getting the influenza.
    There are some new reports on the existance of trichonosoma reappearing in pigs (pork meat rather) again since they are free range and therefore encounter the environment strains of these microbes. I am not saying free range is bad at all, just that you need to see pros and cons with all things. Not to mention that the main concern with large industrial poultry farms as far sa I see it is that the specific strain/species of poultry is very susceptable to one pathogen since they are all uniform…
    I am sure there has been reassortment viruses before the large industrial farming since it is in the nature of (this) virus to pick up genetic fragments from others and it will surely be something else for it in the future. The main question is how to contain it or limit the damage I guess.

  61. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Interesting to hear the pros of intensive meat farming, Asa! Not politically correct, but certainly scientifically intriguing.
    Has anyone read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake?

  62. Audra McKinzie says:

    Damn You Jenny – I was just drafting a post in my head about Oryx and Crake!
    I confess, that I am too entirely engulfed in a knee jerk reaction to the entire media hooptedoodle to give a rational response to the sensible discussion being carried out here, but the corner of my brain that loves to indulge in conspiracy theories is having a field day (doesn’t help that I recently watched V for Vendetta). Is the WHO crying wolf so loudly because they know they something they aren’t telling us?
    If so, I sincerely hope that you are the one chosen to receive immunity so that you may continue to so eloquently chronicle the downfall of civilization!
    Me, I hope I go before the bodies start piling up on the steps of The Opera House.

  63. Cath Ennis says:

    It’s just gone person-to-person in BC.
    I do sometimes question the CBC’s decision to allow comments on every single news article, but in this case it’s interesting to see the public response. Bear in mind that only people with extreme viewpoints ever seem to comment…

  64. Åsa Karlström says:

    Is the WHO crying wolf so loudly because they know they something they aren’t telling us?
    I really don’t think so. They are crying since it looks like a new type of virus spreading person-to-person with fatalites … and we’ve been kind of waiting for a pandemic
    I don’t think there are too many pros of meat farming but, as I wrote on Eric’s post in his blog, there is a few things that we need to address before slamming it all down the tube. Most of all maybe that we people (in the industrial world) need to change our eating habits if we stop industrial farming. (or only rich people again etc…. not to mention that we are urbanized now)
    It’s been a long day but I can’t see that I am non PC… but maybe just breathing “there are other aspects” make it thus? Or I am really in the stupid house 😉

  65. Richard P. Grant says:

    Is there any data as to how the ‘Spanish’ ‘flu of 1918 spread, in the very early days?

  66. Jennifer Rohn says:

    They don’t even know where is started, exactly. Some think Kansas, some think Asia, some think Austria. Apparently it was called ‘Spanish’ flu, I think I remember learning, because it got the most publicity after that point. I guess there was a war going on too, so hard to know.

  67. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yeah, the King of Spain, or some other nob, got it, which is when the British press at last picked it up.
    Shame. Such information would be perhaps useful.

  68. Åsa Karlström says:

    The whole spreading is hard to track since it was a war in there… no detection… sequencing etc but perhaps these two papers will shed some light of your question? Taubenberger & Morens and Olson et al
    If nothing else, most reports state that is was mind when is emerged in the spring and then got bad hitting August and entering the “usual” influenza season….

  69. Eric Michael Johnson says:

    Oryx and Crake is one of my favorite books! There is quite a vigorous discussion about the costs/benefits of intensive meat farming here. I’d like to know what other people think on this issue.

  70. Cristian Bodo says:

    I’m not so sure about the meat farming angle, honestly. Even if there is some truth to it (although, as Jenny pointed out, a deadly virus may as well make the jump to humans from a wild population. Isn’t that the currently accepted version of how HIV first appeared?), you may as well say that we humans are to blame for the virus spread because we live so densely packed these days, and we fly so much. It’s just the way the world is now…what’s the point of pointing fingers to find a culprit? I’m with Asa on that one.

  71. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Yes, I tend to agree, Christian. As Michael Crichton wrote, “Life finds a way.” But obviously if there are things we are doing that could be avoided that could prevent things like this from happening, we do need to know. But I wonder if they’d just happen another way? So hard to tell.
    Asa, it is interesting what you said about the 1918 pandemic, also H1N1, starting out mild in the springtime. I had been lulling myself into a state of complacency by the apparent low pathogenicity so far — and I guess this is a mistake. We must all fervently hope that the combination that produced the cytokine-storm inducing variant leading to 50% fatality in 1918 is not a common outcome of host selection pressure on reassortment…or we are in big trouble.

  72. amy charles says:

    The other problem with masks is that people won’t wear them unless they fear, that moment, for their lives or their children’s lives. Or will get fired if they leave the mask off. I used to have moderately awful asthma, and had to wear a mask while cleaning, especially vacuuming. Wore a series of not-too-effective masks (they make masks here for people with very large faces) before I found a rather nice and expensive mask

    with allergen filters. The fit was great, the valves worked beautifully, and it was still hot and cumbersome enough that as soon as the asthma eased up, I stopped wearing it. Even if going mask-free meant some extra inhaler use later in the day.

  73. Jennifer Rohn says:

    If the virus evolved to be able to kill 50% of people it infected, I think masks would start becoming an option — and one that most wouldn’t complain about. I notice that the flu is slipping further and further down the BBC news front page over the past few days.

  74. Cristian Bodo says:

    Now the WHO is saying that the virus does not seem to be spreading outside North America, and the CDC reports that most cases so far have been a “mild, self-limited illness”. If on top of that we consider that Mexican authorities seem to have overestimated the number of cases in the first place, it looks like this strain is not the One after all (famous last words)
    Now, someone should tell that to the Egyptian authorities before they go on to slaughter those 300,000 pigs, as they were planning to!

  75. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thank heavens for small mercies. Let’s hope they’re right.

  76. amy charles says:

    I agree, Jenny, I think if the death rate were that high, lots of people would tie brooms to their faces if they believed it’d help. But lots just wouldn’t — they’d figure they were lucky, or leave it in God’s hands, or decide everyone else was hysterical, etc. They’d have to see people dying around them first, I think.

  77. Samurai Scientist says:

    I’ll worry about swine flu when pigs fly 🙂

  78. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ha! Nice one.

  79. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Funny what’s happening with the news now. There seems to have been some collective decision by the media that this flu is no longer a story or likely to become one, so although health officials are still closing schools and urging caution, it’s almost as if the message isn’t really getting through any more.
    I have found this whole thing entirely fascinating.

  80. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yeah; I decided to check out what was going on last night and could find next to nothing about it.
    Mind you, getting information on the most nail-biting Heineken Cup semi ever was also difficult.

  81. Frank Norman says:

    A speech today from the WHODG suggests it is still a concern. Reuters are reporting that she has said it will go to level 6 soon.

  82. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Really? Thanks, Frank – you would never have known that from the coverage I’ve been seeing. It’s certainly likely to be pandemic, but I guess the media have decided it’s not likely to mutate into something more lethal – hence, it’s a non-story; I guess even Level 6 wouldn’t be. Of course I hope they are right, but I am not sure what motivations are feeding this – actual evidence, or just the whims of fashion.

  83. Jennifer Rohn says:

    And now the UK government is almost on the defensive for taking it seriously: sense the tone in this snippet from a BBC news piece this morning:
    Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told a press conference that no health minister could ignore World Health Organisation warnings about the possible impact of a flu pandemic.
    “It’s absolutely right that we prepare for the worst here, that’s what we’ve been doing – not that we’re necessarily expecting the worst, but we are preparing for that because it’s the right and responsible thing to do,” she said.

  84. Richard P. Grant says:

    Much as I dislike the current administration, I do think that taking it seriously was the right thing to do.
    Imagine if they’d done nothing and it all went to hell in a handbasket. They’ve got no cause to be defensive, little boys and wolves notwithstanding.

  85. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I agree. I just think it’s fascinating how quickly the mood has shifted.

  86. Richard P. Grant says:

    The gubmint missed a trick there though of course. They should have said,
    “Hey, look! The measures were effective! Trust us. Truuuuust uuussss…”

  87. Richard P. Grant says:

    In case you missed it, Do I have pig flu?.

  88. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hahahaha. Brilliant. Are you going to post the Pooh spoof, or is it too crude for this venue?

  89. Richard P. Grant says:

    ooh, good plan. Maybe I should link to it?

  90. Richard P. Grant says:

    I couldn’t resist, in the end.

  91. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I knew you wouldn’t.

  92. Richard P. Grant says:

    This little piggy went to market,
    This little piggy stayed at home,
    This little piggy had roast beef,
    This little piggy had none.
    And this little piggy had influenza A virus subtype hemagglutinin protein 1 neuraminidase protein 1

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