It was 1972 when a young, New Zealand-born virologist working for
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital joined a rare foreign scientific mission to China, a trip that helped propel him on a path of discovery that over the past five decades has transformed the world’s understanding of influenza and other viruses.
“One of the things I saw immediately was the live animal markets, the live poultry markets,” Dr. Robert G. Webster, now 87 and a member emeritus of the St. Jude faculty, recalled of the China trip. “Over the years, it became clear that this was the intermediate step in the development of novel pandemic influenza viruses.”
Webster and his colleagues would go on to establish that influenza viruses emerge from the wild ducks that migrate all over the world. In the live markets, he said, a “switch” can occur that transmits the viruses from wild ducks to domestic ducks and, eventually, humans.
Still considered a leading authority on viruses nearly a half-century after the China trip, Webster spoke during a video discussion with Richard C. Shadyac Jr., president and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, about infectious diseases and why a hospital best known for combating childhood cancer studies them so intensely.
During the discussion that was part of a series called Inside St. Jude, he also offered observations about the COVID-19 pandemic, although he is not directly involved in researching that disease.
Webster has been fielding questions about St. Jude’s interest in infectious diseases ever since he joined the staff in 1968. He was asked about it during an initial review with an official from the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. In a pointed response, Webster spoke of vulnerability of cancer patients on chemotherapy and other treatments.
“I said, ‘Sir, what kills our children at St. Jude?’ And he thought cancer. I said, ‘No, sir... It’s the infectious diseases – like influenza, like measles, like whooping cough, like COVID-19 – that kill our children.’”
For all its dangers, however, COVID-19 has been effectively controlled at St. Jude, which developed its own test for the virus, Webster said. Measures that include the testing of all hospital staff members every four days have made St. Jude “one of the safest places in this world,” he said.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 shares many similarities with influenza, Webster said, even though it comes from bats, not ducks. Like influenza, it almost certainly emanated from a live animal market in China, in this case spreading to pangolins, a scaly anteater, before making the leap to humans, Webster said.
“While there are many other theories floating around, they have no scientific basis, none of them.”
Although some countries and territories have handled the pandemic well – Webster singled out Hong Kong and his native New Zealand – the United States was “a little bit late” in responding with testing, tracing, distancing and wearing masks. “But we’re with it now,” he said.
As deadly as the pandemic has proven, it is not the catastrophe Webster has long feared. The bird flu of 1997 killed 60 percent of the people it infected, he said, but fortunately that virus “never learned” human-to-human transmission.
In fact, Webster expresses confidence in efforts to develop a vaccine and to find effective therapies for those who are infected with COVID-19.
“We will be on top of this virus by the end of this year, I am optimistic.”