Leeuwenhoek prize lecture by Professor Robert Webster FRS, St Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, USA
Where do the pandemic influenza viruses come from and why did experts fail to predict the severity of the 2009 pandemic? When the virus was characterised as an H1N1 influenza virus related to the 1918 Spanish influenza virus that killed between 20-40 million people globally, the possibility existed for a similar catastrophe. However to date, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza has been much less severe than the 1918 Spanish influenza.
The success factors with influenza are the availability of anti-influenza drugs and improved vaccines. Was the stockpiling of drugs and vaccines a waste of resources? The lesson learned is that influenza viruses will continue to humble scientists; while predicting which influenza viruses will acquire pandemic potential in humans is unlikely, surveillance in healthy pigs may provide early warning. It is probable that in the future, predictions on the severity of a pandemic will be possible.
It is likely that influenza will continue to ‘cuckoo’ the experts.
Professor Robert Webster FRS established the Center of Excellence programme for Influenza Research and Surveillance at St Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, USA, where he is also a Professor in the Division of Virology; Department of Infectious Diseases
The Leeuwenhoek Lecture, named after the great Dutch microscopist, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, was established to recognise excellence in the field of microbiology. It also now includes excellence in bacteriology, virology, mycology and parasitology, and microscopy. Originally held on an annual basis, the lecture is now given triennially.