Dubai: When it comes to understanding the dangers of flu – whether swine, bird or influenza and the possibility of a flu pandemic, Dr J Joseph Kim, an internationally recognised immunologist, is an authority on the subject.
On the sidelines of his recent visit [October 21-23] to Dubai for the 12th Forbes Global CEO Conference, he spoke of a flu pandemic that would occur in the future and urged governments to be prepared.
“The question is not whether it will happen, but when it will happen,” he said.
Dr Kim is the CEO of US-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals. He is the co-inventor of the company’s SynCon vaccine technology platform that creates synthetic. Under this platform are FDA-approved vaccines for Hepatitis as well as developmental vaccines and therapeutics for HIV/AIDS.
He has grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a malaria vaccine, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the world’s foremost medical research centres, for his synthetic HIV vaccine.
Dr Kim’s goal is to create a universal flu vaccine, and is completing Phase I clinical trials of the same.
He said a pandemic is usually cyclical and that the last one, which wiped out a million people, started in Hong Kong in 1968. This was said to be the mildest pandemic of the 20th century.
“The flu pandemic of 1918 killed 40 million people. We are due for [another] one now,” he said, adding that a contagion is possible, just like in the Hollywood movie of the same name. “The bats carried the virus in the movie, and in the Ebola virus in Africa it was the bats again,” he said.
To better understand the two kinds of flu viruses – avian and swine, that created a global scare, he explained each one.
Avian influenza or bird flu infection (H5N1 strain) in humans results from contact with infected poultry like domesticated chicken, ducks, geese, and turkeys or surfaces contaminated with secretion/excretions from infected birds. Since December 2003, many outbreaks of bird flu have led to the culling poultry in countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. The spread from avian flu from one infected person to another is rare. However avian influenza is contagious among birds.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed 583 cases of H5N1 in humans in Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.
Swine influenza or swine flu (H1N1 strain) is a respiratory disease of pigs. The swine flu viruses do not usually infect humans, but rare human infections have occurred. It became pandemic in 2009 before it died down in 2010.
During the last century, flu pandemics were reported in 1918, 1957 and 1968, when millions of people died across the world.
“Avian flu has a horrifying death rate. It kills more than 60 per cent of all infected people – the highest killing rate of any virus. In contrast regular seasonal flu has less than a point five per cent death rate. This fact should concern governments in parts of South East Asia and countries in the Middle East,” said Dr Kim.
Of swine flu he said, “The 2009 H1N1 strain is eerily similar to the 1918 reported virus - this was a major concern. Fortunately, the 2009 version was less deadly.”
The tendency for a flu virus strain to change and mutate rapidly is a worry for health professionals. “Avian flu isn’t contagious among humans, but swine flu is. We know that all flu viruses are eventually transmittable from human to human, making different types of flue a potential concern.”
He added, “People in the UAE should be vigilant about the mutations and changes in the viruses. The H5N1 strain [in birds] can be carried very effectively, and here where there are migratory birds, there is a potential for the virus spreading.”