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Why You Should Never Kiss a Pig

And other wisdom from the Nobel Prize-winning scientist and pandemics expert Peter Doherty.

| Thu Sep. 26, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

MJ: America's most popular cable reality show is called "Duck Dynasty," which involves a bunch of duck hunters. Should hunters, and people who raise ducks, be worried about influenza?

PD: I don't think so. These species crossovers are pretty rare—but they do happen. We had a H3N2 virus last year coming across from pigs to humans at agricultural fairs. It was only people who were getting very friendly with pigs, you know, they were going up close to the pigs and saying, "How are you, pig?" sort of thing. 

MJ: So don't kiss your pig! 

"There's a picture of a kid kissing a pig that all the flu guys show. Yeah, don't kiss your pig and don't get too friendly with a pig."

PD: There's a picture of a kid kissing a pig that all the flu guys show! Yeah, don't kiss your pig and don't get too friendly with a pig. Keep your distance. But the H3N2 didn't go between humans. It only went pig to human.

MJ: Does cooking an infected bird kill off the virus?

PD: Absolutely. It doesn't take much to kill flu. It's pretty labile. But it survives well in water. I don't know any case where anyone caught flu by water, though. As far as we all know, flu only spreads by respiratory routes, by hand and nose. My Pandemics book argues that one of the best things you can do in any situation is to wash your hands and not touch your hand to your face. We all touch our hands to our face an enormous amount and we don't realize it.

MJ: Backyard chickens are a huge trend in the United States. Are they vulnerable?

PD: They could be, but it's unlikely. There are chicken flu viruses that sometimes mutate, and single amino acid change can cause a completely nonvirulent flu virus to be terribly lethal. You get these outbreaks occasionally in chicken houses, but not one of them has ever jumped across into humans. 

MJ: What are some scary viruses most of us won't have heard of?

PD: Well, the scariest in terms of the horrible-ness of the disease are the hemorrhagic fever viruses, and there are a lot of them in South America. There's the bat viruses hendra and nipah viruses in southeast Asia. There's a whole lot of really horrible, scary viruses, and some authors make a lot of this because they're writing for dramatic effect. But until those viruses change to spread readily by respiratory infection, or maybe by gastrointestinal tract like the noroviruses, they're not really a big concern.

MJ: Could we handle something like the 1918 virus?

PD: We’re incredibly better at monitoring it and reacting quickly. There's a great global network of influenza centers, and the technology is infinitely better. A lot of people in 1918 probably died from secondary bacterial infections. We've got antibiotics to deal with bacteria, and so we'd do better there. Also, it looks as though we'll be able to make a lot of flu vaccine very fast. At the moment, it takes us at least six months to get much out there.

MJ: What's changed?

PD: They've got some of it working now in recombinant DNA technology, which means we can grow the proteins in bacteria—which means you can use every fermenter on the planet. At the moment we're growing them in hens eggs. That's really limiting because there's a limited number of facilities. Our armamentarium is improving very fast. You know there's always a chance of some weird virus that comes in from nowhere, like the one in Contagion. But so far, no.

MJ: Speaking of that, what's the best pandemic movie you've ever seen?

PD: Contagion, by far. It got a couple of things a bit wrong, but the director was Steven Soderbergh, and he's a serious guy, evidently. He took a lot of notice of Ian Lipkin, who was the scientific advisor. On the whole, the science was great. There were various elements of dramatic effect—they seem to have three people working on this thing that's killing half the world!

MJ: So, I gather ferrets are used in the lab to model flu transmissibility in humans…

PD: The first human flu virus was isolated in ferrets! It was in London in 1933, I think. Some people there were working with ferrets and they bred a lot more than they wanted and they said, "Oh, does anyone want these ferrets?" And so the flu guys said, "Oh, okay, we'll try it," and they dropped some flu down the ferrets' noses and they got the flu! And not only that, the ferrets infected one of the young investigators. The guys who discovered the virus were all knighted—they were all made "sir."

"We published the sequence of the resurrected 1918 virus with very little controversy...and it's a deadly virus—anyone could've rebuilt that virus."

MJ: Research teams in Wisconsin and the Netherlands recently engineered an unusually deadly bird flu virus that could spread among ferrets, and so presumably humans.

PD: We've been doing that sort of infection in virus labs for about a hundred years. I think it was seized on for some reason. These people were working under extraordinary security conditions, they were actually top-level people. They've tightened the security regulations, but the real concern is not these guys doing it—the real concern is a bunch of cowboys doing it in some other country, without any control. This is not rocket science. Anyone with a basic training in molecular virology can do these experiments. People can do it in their garage if they were sophisticated and they had a bit of money.

MJ: Are there some results you think shouldn't be published?

PD: They ended up publishing them after a lot of controversy and discussion. The papers are in Science and Nature. But we published the sequence of the resurrected 1918 virus with very little controversy around 2000, I think it was. Nobody made much fuss and it's a deadly virus—anyone could've rebuilt that virus.

MJ: And that doesn't worry you?

PD: There's nothing you can do about it really. Do you want to keep it secret? Can you keep it secret? I'm not sure you can.

MJ: You could limit it to professional flu researchers.

PD: It wouldn't stay tight. Do you know anything that stays secret in the US? The reason I never believed conspiracy theories in the United States is because nobody can shut up!

MJ: Some of your own countrymen, in Canberra, inadvertently created a killer mouse pox virus a while back, and then alerted the world about it.

PD: Yeah, it was an odd experiment where they put one of the cytokine genes into the mouse pox and it became extremely virulent. Look, if I was Saddam Hussein and I really wanted to make a virulent flu virus, I would take a recently drawn flu virus, I would passage it through groups of 20 prisoners, I'd take the virus from the ones who were dying, and I would passage it through more. Anyone could do this. It's a snip, really. You just have to be unscrupulous enough.

MJ: Are you worried about bioterrorism?

"Microorganisms as weapons of war are extremely poor weapons. They're very untargeted, for a start, and not very efficient to deliver."

PD: I just think it's such a lousy weapon. The best bioterror weapon is probably anthrax. We saw how effective it is: It didn't kill very many people, but it created enormous fear and enormous disruption. But microorganisms as weapons of war are extremely poor weapons. They're very untargeted, for a start, and not very efficient to deliver.

MJ: So you seem pretty upbeat about our being able to handle a pandemic.

PD: We should be very careful about cutting public health monitoring and services. We should protect organizations like CDC and public health offices, and that part of the World Health Organization that deals with pandemics. There could be a lot more money put in to things like developing new antibiotics against tuberculosis and drug-resistant bacteria. I think I read something that 20,000 to 30,000 people died last year in the United States from drug-resistant bacteria. But I don't think we should walk around in fear that some terrible pandemic is going to kill us all off. When the plague was circulating in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, it would kill a half to a third of the population of cities. We've never seen anything like that. It did have some important effects, but it certainly didn't kill off humanity.

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