Why we are sitting ducks for China’s bird flu…”If China’s bird flu acquires the ability to spread between people, we don’t have the drugs or vaccines to tackle a pandemic”
by Debora MacKenzie
06 May 2013
I EXPECTED the SHOC to be scary, and I was not disappointed. The Strategic Health Operations Centre at the World Health Organization in Geneva is like a war room for diseases. From here, WHO leaders coordinate the response to pandemics and other global crises, surrounded by giant screens displaying video calls and the latest data. The last time it was called into serious action was in 2009, during the swine flu pandemic.
On a quiet day last month it seemed pretty benign, all blond wood, white walls and a few murmuring staff. Then I looked at a screen displaying Twitter feeds. One was on Syrian chemical weapons. Another was on a new Middle Eastern respiratory virus that has been compared to SARS. Four more were on H7N9, the deadly bird flu that emerged in March in China.
On another screen I could see a count of flu cases, now topping 100 – more in two months than the long-feared H5N1 bird flu racks up in two years. A third had a map of eastern China marking all known cases.
That was when the place began to feel scary. Epidemiologists love maps. If the WHO is mapping H7N9, I thought, it must be worried.
I was right. Last week WHO flu chief Keiji Fukuda went to China to assess the situation. At a press conference he described H7N9 as “an unusually dangerous virus for humans” and “definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses we have seen so far”. Fukuda is possibly the most measured, cautious scientist I have ever interviewed. This is serious.