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Mid-hockey game BlackBerry check leads to swine virus discovery

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/4/2009 (3031 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TORONTO - The scientific director of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory was watching a Friday night hockey game when he checked his BlackBerry for messages, something the towering scientist with the distinctive shock of white hair does on a regular basis.

Though the game was less than two weeks ago, Dr. Frank Plummer can no longer remember which teams were playing. There's little wonder.

Plummer's compulsive email checking brought to his attention a call for help from his counterpart at Mexico's national microbiology lab, the Instituto de Diagnostico y Referencia Epidemiologicos.

His quick responding offer of assistance led to the Winnipeg lab being the second in the world to come to study a virus that may be poised to trigger a flu pandemic, the novel swine flu virus that is spreading in humans in Mexico, the United States, Canada, and a growing number of countries.

For most people, the mere mention of disease outbreaks is anxiety provoking. But for microbiologists and virologists who work in places like the national lab in Winnipeg, there's an undeniable jolt of excitement that comes from finding something others haven't seen before - even if it could lead to an outbreak they might dread.

"This is one of the things we're created for and we prepare for all the time," says Plummer, excitement evident in his voice.

"It's like the fire department, right? Are they happy when there's a fire? No. But there's an adrenaline rush with it."

It was Friday, April 17. The email, a long one, was from Dr. Celia Alpuche Aranada, with whom Plummer has regular interaction through Canada-U.S.-Mexico collaborations.

She described an alarming situation - outbreaks of severe respiratory infections in four Mexican cities. INDRE - the lab's acronym - had been unable to diagnose what was behind the outbreaks.

"It sounded dire," Plummer admits.

Alpuche asked for help and Plummer offered it, suggesting a teleconference for the next morning. He recalls being struck by his counterpart's frame of mind.

"I said: 'Hi, Celia, how are you?" She said: 'Well, I'm busy and I'm worried' or something to that effect," Plummer says.

"She's a very cool, level-headed person. So if she's worried, then I'm worried."

Coincidentally, the day the email arrived was also the same day U.S. officials informed the World Health Organization the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta had found a case of human infection with a swine flu virus in a person in California.

New flu viruses from animals have the potential to trigger pandemics, because people don't have immunity to them. Under the International Health Regulations, countries must notify the WHO when they are discovered to have infected people.

Plummer hadn't yet learned about the U.S. finding when he replied to Alpuche. He wasn't thinking influenza. He thought they might be diagnosing the next SARS.

"Yeah, I did. It seemed like, from what we were told by the Mexicans, it seemed like a good possibility it was an unknown pathogen."

Fifty-one specimens arrived at the lab's loading dock at exactly 11:39 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, April 22. Scientists quickly got down to work, using techniques designed to increase the likelihood that the limited material in the specimens would yield results.

Given the CDC's findings, the Winnipeg scientists ran tests designed to look for known human flu strains and for what is known as untypeable flu viruses - viruses that don't circulate in people so cannot be found by tests designed to diagnose human flu.

They looked for one of the genes of flu viruses, the matrix gene. "And that was the first positive hit we got."

"And within I guess a little bit less than 24 hours - people worked through the night - we knew we had influenza and we knew the sequence of that portion of the matrix gene was very close to what had been released by CDC at that point," he says.

Using genetic sequence data posted on an Internet-based databank by the CDC, the Winnipeg scientists created primers - pieces of RNA that are used in polymerase chain reaction testing - to look for the two surface genes of the flu virus the CDC had found.

And lo and behold, Winnipeg discovered Mexico had an outbreak of swine flu infection.

That all unfolded within 48 hours. Mexico was informed - the results, after all, belonged to them. And then on Friday, a week after the fateful email arrived, the WHO and U.S. authorities were notified of the findings.

Hours later, the Public Health Agency of Canada was informed Nova Scotia had possible cases of the new illness and the Winnipeg lab used its newly designed swine flu test to confirm that the virus had arrived in Canada.

Plummer can't keep the delight out of his voice when he describes the rapid-fire events.

"Oh, absolutely," he says when asked if he is proud of his team's feat.

"We've put in place this incident command centre system and an operation centre and we've exercised it," he explains.

"Put in advanced capacity for identifying novel pathogens and hired people to do that. And to see it all kick into gear and work really, really well and really really fast - it was incredible."


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