Can We Stop the Next Killer Flu?

Jeffery Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
Jeffery Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville is studying the genetic mysteries of avian flu. (Scott Gregory Robinson)
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Scientists like Jeffery Taubenberger aren't just going to sit there waiting for a pandemic. They're gearing up for the war between bugs and humans

JEFFERY TAUBENBERGER, VIRUS HUNTER, goes to work in a bland building overlooking I-270 in Rockville. It's the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, and it is scheduled to be "disestablished" as part of the broader plan to close military bases around the country. Taubenberger doesn't know for sure what he'll be doing in a year or so. For now, he's still walking past the fluttering flags every day, down a flight of steps to a windowless office, where he's trying to save the world from a mysterious germ.

Doom and Gloom Talk Will Be Limited to 30 Minutes Daily, reads a sign on his bookshelf. I ask if that's a reference to the avian flu. No, he says, that's about the base closings.

The office is small and cluttered, with multiple stacks of documents, suggesting a man who is struggling to impose order on an overly busy life. His phone keeps ringing -- everyone wants a piece of him. You can't pick up a newspaper without seeing a story about the possible plague of avian flu, also known as bird flu or, to be scientifically correct, influenza A/H5N1. Millions could die, the stories say. Or tens of millions. Or hundreds of millions. Avian flu has reached a cultural and media tipping point, a kind of celebrity as the premier biological menace to civilization.

Avian flu is certainly a frightening virus. It kills birds, can infect human beings and has been lethal in about half of the documented cases so far in Asia and Indonesia. More than 60 people have died already. But so far it hasn't become easily transmissible from one human to another, unlike the common influenza virus that circulates every winter. Avian flu is still just that -- a bird flu, not a human flu. Every article about this flu has a boilerplate paragraph, as if mandated by law, stating that scientists fear the virus will mutate, become highly contagious in humans, and create a pandemic that will rival the catastrophe of the Spanish influenza of 1918.

Taubenberger is doing his part to keep that from happening. He wants to understand the various types of flu viruses at the most essential level -- tunneling deep into their genetic mysteries. What kind of mutation could turn avian flu into a pandemic pathogen? What genetic improvisations in these little nodules of RNA and protein -- these things so small and spare they hardly deserve the grandiose label of "microbe" -- can turn an ordinary flu into a cold-blooded killer?

He'll pause at some point to get a flu shot. "I'm susceptible to respiratory infections," he says. Taubenberger is something of an alpha nerd. Modest of stature, rather boyish at 44, quick of speech, he keeps on his desk a prop from his 10th-grade science fair project at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, the one that merited the grand prize for Fairfax County. It's a homemade model of the double helix, the structure of the DNA molecule. When discussing the genome of the flu virus, he will touch parts of the double helix and give a quick lecture on how life works: The adenine always binds to the thymine, the guanine to the cytosine . . .

The only flu in the room, as far as anyone can tell, is on a shelf. It's a stuffed, fuzzy influenza virus with plastic eyeballs,

a joke flu from a company called Giant Microbes. It's just a blob. That's scientifically accurate, because flu virus has an unremarkable appearance. In an electron microscope, you see a knobby little ball.

The effects of flu are more dramatic. Taubenberger keeps autopsy samples of lung tissue from a soldier who died of the 1918 virus. These are thin sections of lung, cut and stained, and preserved in paraffin on a glass slide. He puts a slide under his microscope. First we look at healthy tissue: Clearly visible are the air sacs, ready to breathe, with a scattering of red blood cells. Then we look at diseased tissue. They're filled, completely choked, with little red circles. Blood cells.

"You don't see any open air sacs anywhere. They're all filled with blood. This person drowned in his own blood," Taubenberger says. "This is not good, to use a highly technical medical term."

The 1918 flu killed more people in a short period of time than any other plague in human history. Taubenberger and his scientific collaborators hope that the virus will serve as a Rosetta stone for understanding avian flu. They have literally rebuilt the 1918 virus and brought it back to life. Taubenberger has come to the conclusion that there was something very weird about this germ. It was a bird flu that jumped to humans, but the fine print of its genetic code is noticeably different from that of other bird flus.

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