Whack-a-flu

By Jonas Waldenström

These are interesting times in avian flu research. International disease reporting fora are full of notifications on avian influenza viruses in different parts of the world – China, USA, Egypt, Israel, Korea, Taiwan, Bulgaria, Nigeria. It’s like the game of whack-a-mole, where two new viruses appear as soon as one virus disappears. The current list of viruses includes some that have been around for awhile, such as the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus that has been endemic in parts of Asia and Egypt the last ten years, causing outbreaks in poultry and a few, but severe cases in people. Another one is low pathogenic H7N9, which repeatedly is causing human infection in China, and where worries are that we will see more cases as winter progresses.

On top of these we have some new kids on the block. A particular interesting one is the highly pathogenic H5N8 virus, and related reassorted viruses. During 2014, this virus hit the poultry industry in Korea, and 14 million chickens were culled in order to get the epizootic in check. In the later part of the year, the geographical range of the virus expanded, with detection in both wild and domestic birds in China and Japan, and later, after a giant leap, in Germany, the Netherlands, UK, and Italy.

Over the holiday season, highly pathogenic H5N2, H5N1 and H5N8 viruses have popped up in North America. Among the birds infected we find several wild birds, either detected through passive surveillance of dead birds, or through active targeted surveillance. Interestingly, these viruses have gene segments from the highly pathogenic H5N8 virus that circulates in Eurasia, but have reassorted with avian influenza viruses native to North America.

There are a couple of things worth noticing here. To start with, this new group of H5 viruses has made a remarkable geographic range expansion in a considerable short time. There has been repeated detection in wild birds in areas where no poultry cases have been detected, suggesting an active role of wild birds in distance dispersal. Furthermore, although some birds have been found dead (mainly non-reservoir species for low pathogenic viruses) there have been cases of H5N8 (and related viruses) retrieved from healthy waterfowl, again suggesting that this particular hemagglutinin may have a high fitness among wild birds. Moreover, the fact that this virus has reassorted with North American avian lineages suggests that it may be able to persist in the virus population for some time ahead.

In light of all this it is really about time to ramp up avian flu surveillance in Europe too. We need to collect and analyze many more wild bird samples than what is currently done, and couple this data with targeted experimental studies.

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The professor’s graveyard

By Jonas Waldenström

I was having lunch with Dr X. and Dr Y. the other day. This is not unusual, we regularly head out on town for lunch, talking about the same old stuff we always do. Namely: women, booze, and bird watching philosophy, modern art and bird watching. And, of course, university administration, grant writing, and overhead costs.

This time we talked about the coming and goings of students and postdocs, and the hardship for people to secure permanent positions. (And here, if I may digress, we also talked about the stupidity of Swedish legislation that forces talented scientists to abandon academia because of the ‘two year rule’). Anyway, when Dr X. had put his fork down and slowly folded his paper napkin, he concluded that most people probably lead fuller lives outside academia than inside. And that this would apply to us too.

I am sure he is right, at least to a degree. Life in the Ivory Tower is not as glamorous as people think. In fact, it is often stressful, always competitive, and sometimes even dull. But it is also at times extremely rewarding, hugely inspiring, and full of talented students and colleagues. A sweet and bitter pill.

Over the years I have kept a mantra that I can do something else, if I just want to. You know, leave the keys on the desk and go get another job. And succeed well in that new line of work. However, now I am not that sure anymore. Maybe I am growing complacent, or I have molted too far into full eccentric professor’s plumage, but the call of the outside world isn’t that strong to me anymore.

In fact I like my job, and I love Dr X. and Dr Y. I look forward to this scene repeating itself over the years. We will go to the same restaurants and moan about the same stuff. Perhaps spice it up with age-related ailments, nasal hairs, and worries about our teenage kids. All the way to the professor’s graveyard.

And I kind of like that.

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