Dmitri Lvov is the Director of the Ivanovsky Research Institute of Virology at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, and has been very vocal over the threat of a bird flu pandemic in the past.
Lvov has gone as far as to predict as many as 1 billion people could die in a severe pandemic, a number several times higher than most scientists are willing to contemplate.
Lvov attended this week's International Conference on Bird Flu in Bali, and gave this newspaper interview.
Bird flu can mutate to infect humans
The international medical community has met in Bali for the Sixth International Bird Flu Summit to discuss the possibility of mutations in the avian flu virus leading to human pandemics, RIA Novosti reported.
Attending the summit was Dmitry Lvov, director of the Ivanovsky Research Institute of Virology at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.
The danger of mutations, Lvov warns, is considerable, and the situation is potentially highly alarming.
“The H5N1 virus needs only one or two amino acid changes to become transmittable between humans, to produce mutations and hybrid cells,” Lvov said. “Nobody knows when these killers may appear, for everything depends on the specific features of the virus’s receptors. So far, it can provoke pathologies after reaching the lower parts of the respiratory tract. The ordinary flu virus hits the upper sectors.”
The scientist said: “Since H5N1 mutations never stop, the virus could eventually ‘learn’ to hit the upper parts of humans’ respiratory tract. This would be very bad, but in the worst scenario bird and flu viruses will infect the same recipient, for example a pig, whose organism is susceptible to both viruses. There is one chance in a million of that, but this one chance could result in a global catastrophe that would claim millions of lives.”
“The scale of danger is huge. Any country will be completely defenseless against the disease, because quarantines will not help, as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 showed,” Lvov said.
- The virus has not yet overcome the genetic barrier, yet humans are dying of bird flu, although mainly in East Asia. Why?
- About 400 humans have contracted bird flu. So far, it is extremely difficult to contract bird flu, for molecular and genetic reasons. You must have direct contact with an infected bird to catch the disease, for example, by drinking the infected bird’s blood (some nations do this) or “kissing” the infected hen. I was told that a girl started giving the kiss of life to her favorite hen, which she had nurtured since it was an egg. As a result, the child died.
In other words, hygiene has now become a matter of life and death. So far, there have not been any cases of virus transmission between humans.
-Bird flu has existed since prehistoric times. What has provoked the appearance of its current, highly virulent form?
- Birds are the natural carriers of bird flu. The virus and birds have lived together for 300 million years, so that wild fowl have become immune to it. But when conditions change, the bird flu genome changes too, producing new, highly virulent strains. To keep living, viruses must mutate. Sometimes new and dangerous strains infect humans, spreading across the globe incredibly fast.
Scientists reported 40 years ago that birds carry all the pandemic flu strains, although not all scientists accepted that view immediately. The first proponents of this theory were Robert Webster, of St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee; Professor Graeme Laver of Australia; and myself. We were ridiculed then. Unfortunately, we have now been proved right.