Planet of Viruses
"If I were to interpret the situation, then I would say: The signs are ideal for a pandemic," said Albert Osterhaus recently in the Heidelberg Forum, which organizes lectures on life sciences with the biomedical scientists on site. And when asked, the virologist from Rotterdam admitted: "If she came, we would be left empty-handed."
That didn't sound good, especially from a researcher who doesn't tend to be alarmist at all. Rarely have I felt the ground tremble so much under me: at any time threatened by a mass death on the scale of the Spanish flu in 1918. At that time, Osterhaus also estimates, 55 million people died from an aggressive influenza virus, the H1N1 type. Subsequent influenza pandemics-Asia in 1957 with H2N2 and Hong Kong in 1968 with H3N2-also claimed several million victims. Finally, in 1997, the first humans died from H5N1, a highly dangerous strain with the potential to become a pandemic strain.
If a pandemic, a global epidemic, came, it would probably be avian influenza viruses of this type. It was Stephen Jay Gould who pointed out that we live in the age of bacteria - and, one might add, their lesser siblings, viruses. Life without both is unthinkable, but with them is also a plague, and often of deadly proportions.
Albert Osterhaus knows viruses, his laboratory is constantly decoding the genetic code of these warfare creatures, the H5N1 strain was deciphered in him, which a doctor had found in Hong Kong in 1997, but couldn't figure out. They are currently conducting mass screenings of migratory bird populations with other laboratories. The global alarm networks have been much more tightly knit since the sudden outbreak of the Sars pulmonary disease. That's not a luxury: "There's a lot more out there.“
New viruses cause plagues. 13 out of 14 virus epidemics in recent years are "zoonotic" - they jumped from animals to humans. Our lifestyle with high mobility and animal transports around the world also mix the reservoir worldwide. In the 1980s, several people suddenly died in New York from West Nile virus, which had previously only been observed in East Africa and Israel. How did he end up in New York? “Possibly with mosquitoes on a plane.” By 2001, the West Nile virus had spread across the United States, killing 200 people, horses, and entire bird populations. Now he's moving south.
Other animal diseases are getting closer to us. Bluetongue affects sheep and is transmitted by small mosquitoes. Last summer it covered half of Europe. "It has never been observed here before," says Osterhaus. And the warm winter would further promote their distribution routes. Global warming would bring us completely different pathogen invasions in the future, predicts the Dutchman.
Viruses can also jump (back) from human to animal. In Africa, Ebola has already wiped out thousands of humans - their species are acutely endangered, and not only by agriculture and poachers. The US spent $2 billion on bioterrorism protection last year. But: "Nature is the true bioterrorist," says the virologist dryly. And mentions H5N1 again. It attacks in waves. The virus is currently attacking in a third wave, and people in Cairo and Romania have died again in recent months. And last Sunday the message came from Moscow: The virus was also detected there again in bird carcasses that had been collected in the past few days.
Of course, our lifestyle cannot be turned back, the world is a single pool with undreamt-of virus reservoirs in the wild populations. At some point another one manages to break through the barrier to humans and to spread further through them. And at some point, maybe sooner than we fear, we stand there - "empty-handed".