Beijing –or at least the small corner of it where the Time office is located- is currently in the grip of an unpleasant stomach virus. The virus is making its rounds with sickness’ usual randomness, here three out of four people in an office struck down, next door, none; here three kids mildly affected and one parent out of commission for almost a week. Plagued by the bug myself, I had time to muse about the dreaded H5N1 flu virus, whose apocalyptic mutation into a highly contagious and virulently lethal new form we now have been awaiting for almost ten years. Actually, it’s my gut feeling, if you’ll excuse the expression, that we are like the proverbial generals, always fighting the last war again, not the next one. When we do get hit with some major outbreak, it’ll be completely unexpected and likely have nothing to do with H5N1, possibly something like SARs or an H2N3 flu virus or whatever. That’s not to say H5N1 isn’t frightening. I covered the original outbreak in Hong Kong and well remember the genuine fear in the eyes of the experienced epidemiologists who had flown out to help from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. But as my former editor (and author of the definitive book on the SARS episode) Karl Greenfeld points out, H5N1 has had a pretty good chance to mutate, nine years in which it has been in close contact with humans, killed around a hundred people (64 in Indonesia, where any successful breakout by H5N1 will happen), all that and still no mutation. He argues that the longer we go with no mutation, the less likely it is. In other words, if it hasn’t happened by now, some fundamental aspect of the virus’ make up may be mitigating against a major change.
Don’t throw away your Tamiflu just yet though. There are plenty of other viruses lurking out there, just waiting to mutate, particularly in the virus paradise of southern China, where the last few big flu epidemics started. Nowhere else on the planet do quite so many fowl, swine and humans live cheek by snout and beak swapping viruses back and forth like a couple of teenagers in the back row of the movies. And, as is so often repeated, global air travel provides a perfect distribution system for an ambitious newborn virus. Doomsayers, like hypochondriacs, are always right eventually. Let’s just hope it’s a long, long “eventually.”