Nathan Wolfe’s jungle search for viruses | Video on TED.com (Why it’s important to beat H1N1, now)


Here’s Nathan Wolfe explaining how viruses work, quickly and at a high enough level to be entertaining, and explaining why we need to worry about H1N1.

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Wolfe also explained a lot at the TED Blog:

Take us back a step or two: How did swine flu enter into the human population?

Swine flu has been known since at least the early part of the 20th century, since the 1930s. It was originally a virus of bird origin — all influenza viruses were originally bird viruses — and it probably spread to humans before it was in pigs.

Now, we still haven’t received definitive information on the underlying genetics of this particular virus. But initial reports suggest that it may be what’s known as a “mosaic virus,” which includes components of swine influenzas, bird influenzas and human influenzas. A cosmopolitan virus like that wouldn’t be unprecedented. (Editor’s Note: see Joe DeRisi’s 2006 TEDTalk for more on state-of-the-art virus detection.)

But in any case, this is a virus that appears to come from pigs, and pigs in close proximity spread the flu in much the same way that humans do — coughing, sneezing, and so on. The virus probably initially entered into human populations through people who work with livestock.

Is swine flu here to stay?

Whether this particular virus will sustain itself and become a permanent part of the human landscape is unclear, but that’s certainly what we’re watching for. As it is, the virus may just disappear because of the weather; summers aren’t good for flu viruses.

So this heat wave is working in our favor?

It might be. The virus has had a good start, from the flu perspective, considering that this is really the end of the season. But the unseasonably hot weather may bode poorly for this virus’ potential to establish itself definitively and cause a pandemic. Had this happened in September or October, it would be much more concerning.

Having said that, it’s not impossible that a virus like this might “go into hiding” — in the southern hemisphere or the tropics — and might come to light again next year. So there will be a lot of discussion about expanding the fall flu vaccine to try to control it next cycle.

Is it really possible for us to prevent future outbreaks like this?

Yes, I believe it is. We spend tons of money trying to predict complex phenomena like tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes. There’s no reason to believe that a pandemic is harder to predict than a tsunami. And we’d be foolish not to include forecasting and prevention as part of our overall portfolio to fight these pandemics.

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