In much the same way as the War Nerd gets a boner from cataloging exotic and bloody conflicts, I get my stiffies from closely following the progress of the world’s most cunning and devious infectious diseases.
I dunno — maybe it’s the result of a troubled and anti-social adolescence combined with a biology degree, but there’s something about a deadly new pathogen laying waste to wide swaths of blissfully unsuspecting populace that really pops my tent pole. Our monumental human hubris suddenly crumbles, outwitted by a tiny package of genetic material and proteins, one billionth our size, that’s been finely honed by evolution to hijack the machinery of our cells, often killing us in gruesome and spectacular ways as an unexpected side benefit.
So when H5N1 — otherwise known as bird flu (or, depending on where you get your TV news from, also: “deadly bird flu,” “the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus,” or my redundant favorite, “the deadly H5N1 avian bird flu”) — appeared on the scene in south-east Asia in late 2003, I grabbed my bucket of popcorn and got ready to watch the horror show.
But when the virus made its way to Russia late last year, I ditched my snacks and grabbed some Tamiflu and a gas mask instead. That’s because the Russian government is telling some awfully queer stories about how they’re dealing with the disease, and none of what they’re saying is making me feel particularly safe.
As you probably know by now from watching CNN, H5N1 is a disease that really only affects birds. So why should we care? First of all, H5N1 is a remarkably effective killing machine. It’s already done the business with more than a hundred million birds worldwide in a matter of a few months. And now, it’s made its way from wild, migratory birds to domestic poultry — including several hotspots in the backwoods of the Ural Mountains. And those are just the ones the Russian government is telling us about.
The second reason is that H5N1 — like all influenza viruses — is incredibly adept at fine-tuning its genetic makeup. This allows it to really pad out its resume with new species it can happily infect.
Last week, a paper in the American journal Science outlined the exact structure of the hemagglutinin protein — the “H” in H5N1. It’s a tiny, mushroom-shaped projectile that sticks out from the surface of the virus, allowing it to latch onto the cells that line the airway, which is the first step of an infection.
Now, the cells that line the respiratory tracts of birds and humans are slightly different. In birds, these cells produce a certain kind of sugar molecule. It turns out that the H protein in H5N1 happily gobbles these sugars for breakfast, meaning that birds get penetrated by the virus faster than fresh pole-dancer at Safari Gentlemen’s Club.
We humans, on the other hand, are lucky fuckers indeed, because our respiratory cells are coated with a different kind of sugar. So, by and large, H5N1 slides harmlessly down our throats like… I’d rather not say.
But don’t get too relaxed yet, sports-fans. Because it also turns out that the difference between those two types of sugars is very small indeed. In fact, if the H5N1 virus can manage to sustain only two tiny mutations, it’ll make short work of our respiratory cells as well.
So, all that lies between us and a nightmare world of phlegm-clogged corpses decaying on the floors of overcrowded hospitals is two tiny genetic hiccups in a virus that’s already so prone to violent fluctuations in its genome that it makes HIV look like a quiet day at the beach.
Those in the know about flu say the only way to prevent the next human flu pandemic is to a) kill birds at risk of catching H5N1; b) establish a very rigid surveillance program in regions where poultry and humans intermix, and c) vaccinate domestic birds against the virus.
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