Even if it had been true

The “as it happens” nature of the internet is, for the most part, a wonderful thing, especially if one happens to be an “information junkie” such as myself.  It doesn’t come without its downside, however.  Sometimes initial reports are just plain wrong, as was the case yesterday.

From ScienceInsider at Science.com:

An Egyptian news story that is starting to receive worldwide attention about a nightmare swine flu/bird flu coinfection is inaccurate, according to officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Egyptian report was picked up yesterday by the widely read electronic surveillance system ProMED. Although the ProMED moderators raised many questions about the story, it remained unclear whether it was accurate. According to Nancy Cox, head of the CDC’s influenza division, there’s no evidence that this man is infected with both viruses. “Our reliable sources indicate that this report is incorrect,” Cox told ScienceInsider in an e-mail. Apparently, tests have shown that the man is coinfected with the pandemic H1N1 and the seasonal H3N2 virus. “There will be follow-up testing to confirm,” according to Cox. As many as 5% of people who develop flu symptoms are infected with two different influenza viruses.

On 30 August, the well regarded Egyptian newspaper Almasry reported that an Egyptian man who returned from a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia had tested positive for both the highly lethal bird flu virus, H5N1, and the novel H1N1 strain that’s behind the swine flu pandemic. This is the first such report of a coinfection with the two viruses, which many researchers fear because the mix could create a new virus that has the virulence of bird flu, which does not move easily between humans, and the highly transmissible swine flu.

It’s great that the initial story as reported was incorrect, since the potential of a genetic mash-up between H5N1 (Bird Flu) and any human influenza virus is a concern.

But, this gives me the opportunity to address the concept in general.  We may have some level of concern but a coinfection, if, and when, one happens, is not an automatic “bad thing” for anyone other than the person unlucky enough to become infected with H5N1 and one of the “human” circulating influenza viruses.

Not only would the two viruses need to meet up in the exact same cell during a very finite time (measured in hours), and that is something that nature does a great deal to prevent, but those two viruses would need to exchange “bits” [nucleotides, amino acids, or whole genes] form a third virus.  Not only would those “bits” need to form a new virus, that virus would need to be viable.  Generally, changes are either neutral or a genetic dead end.  And, finally, even if a new virus is genetically fit [viable], it still needs forward transmission, other people to become infected with the new strain, to be a threat to the wider population.

What all that really means is that a lot of very specific things have to happen, and they have to happen in a specific order and within a rather short span of time, for a co-infection to be an actual threat instead of just a theoretical one.  The chances of all those things lining up are very remote indeed, as such, even if the original reports had been correct we would not necessarily have been staring Armageddon in the eye.

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One Response to Even if it had been true

  1. Phoenix says:

    thankyou for that ‘hot of the press’ commentary. However, further news reporting is coming out from Italy alleging ‘co-infection’ that so far appears to be correct. So perhaps it is too early to conclude co-infection is not happening..or rather what it will mean. Keep up the good work, this could be interesting, not to say concerning.