Virologists at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have completed a detailed study of the H1N1 swine flu virus, and the news is…well, it’s less than good.

The virus, which has demonstrated a filament shape unusual in flu viruses, has the potential to be much more severe than most researchers have thought so far. That’s because, in addition to being more apt to reproduce itself within lung tissue, the H1N1 virus has demonstrated an ability to infect cells deep within lung tissue far beyond that of a standard seasonal flu virus.

This capacity for infiltrating further into the lungs distinguishes the H1N1 virus, according to researchers, including study leader Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who stated that “There is clear evidence the virus is different than seasonal influenza.” Where most flu viruses only affect the upper respiratory system, the H1N1 bug can go much deeper, bringing about pneumonia, bronchitis and possibly death.

The truly unnerving thing to note about this study, published this month in the journal Nature, is that the ability to penetrate deep into the lungs is something we’ve seen before. The trait was also expressed in the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. The fact that people born before 1918 seem to have antibodies against the H1N1 swine flu further suggests that we’re looking at a flu virus whose closest corollary wiped out significant swaths of humanity almost a century ago, when passing flu from one community to another was significantly more difficult.

In other words – this could be a bad one. And while most people seem to have stopped worrying about it, I’m staying at a Level Orange Alert (at least while we still have one) on the matter of a swine flu pandemic. Not every disease du’ jour is going to be the next big thing in global health crises (see also, SARS, bird flu, West Nile virus) but eventually, something is going to break big, and the current H1N1 strain is a pretty likely candidate for doing some real damage. Add to that the fact that a serious outbreak (deaths, high fear of contagion, etc.) during  flu season in the US this year would deliver a hammer blow to a global economy still struggling to get it’s feet, and set back progress on that front at a time we can ill afford it?

Sound like a worst case scenario? It is. But it’s not at all one that’s outside the realm of possibility right now. And I know I may sound unreasonably doom and gloom, but hey, a paranoid is just someone who has all the facts, right? I’m not saying the sky is falling, but the common consensus seems to be that this thing is no cause for concern, an I just don’t buy that line.

The study does have a silver lining, in that anti-viral drugs seemed to be an effective first line of defense against the virus. But with a working vaccine probably unavailable until the end of the year, they’re also the only line of defense at this point.

The United Kingdom saw it’s fifteenth death related to the H1N1 swine flu yesterday, which should be an event of dubious notoriety. Quite frankly, the way this thing is spreading, seeing more deaths from it (especially in the coming flu season) is something it might behoove us all to prepare for.

What makes this passing notable, though, is the fact that it is the first death since the virus was confirmed in the United Kingdom in March that seems to be attributable solely to the flu virus. To date, patients in the UK with swine flu have died of complications from other underlying health issues. The patient who died yesterday, whose name is being withheld at the request of relatives, appeared to die of swine flu and nothing but swine flu.

But we’re not the only ones who will have to deal with this disease, which has recently proven that it can go home again. The H1N1 flu strain that is spreading among human populations right now can also be passed from humans to pigs, according to a recent study published in The Journal of General Virology.

The bad news is that this news provides a whole new factor in the spread of the current flu pandemic. The good news, though, is two fold – first, it seems that pigs remain unable to transmit the virus to humans. And second, chickens also involved in the study failed to fall ill from the virus, suggesting that pig or human to bird transmission is not possible. Yet.

Turns out that you cannot stop swine flu, you can only hope to… uh, never mind.

World Health Organization director Margaret Chan opened a conference on the disease last week calling the novel flu virus “unstoppable.” And there’s no more official rendering of that verdict than today’s announcement that the H1N1 swine flu variant has become a pandemic, according to WHO guidelines.

The announcement made health officials in the United Kingdom seem particularly prescient when they announced just one day before that an ounce of prevention may not be worth a pound of cure in this case. On Thursday, recently appointed Secretary of State for Health Andy Burnham announced that public health officials had given up on trying to contain the spread of the disease, which is spreading rapidly in Britain. With diagnosed cases doubling every day in the United Kingdom and the possibility of the nation seeing 100,000 new cases every day as soon as August, doctors are switching tack from preventing the disease to managing it’s effects and helping patients to cope.

The task of coping with the disease could prove relatively easy – while it spreads like wildfire, the strain remains a relatively mild one. With more than 90,000 cases diagnosed, only 429 deaths have been reported, with mortality occurring mostly in patients with existing health problems other than the flu. But combating the new strain will be expensive – the British government has ordered almost eight million doses of vaccine for swine flu, which should be available in just a few months, at a cost of 88 million euros. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon estimated the UN will need $1 billion to help poorer nations combat the virus worldwide.

But even in the midst of a global recession, the fact remains that money spent on health care is generally money well spent. After all, if even Europe’s finest sorcery students are susceptible to the H1N1 swine flu, what hope do us mere mortals have of avoiding the coming pig plague?

Let the panic begin!

Emergency talks at the United Nations today are expected to result in the announcement the latest H1N1 swine flu virus has officially reached pandemic levels. For anyone who has been playing along at home, this comes as a foregone conclusion – the disease has probably been at a technically pandemic stage for a while, despite the World Health Organizations best efforts at better health through happy thinking.

That said, the last few weeks have seen sharp rises in cases of the H1N1 swine flu across the world. From the frozen north, where the province of Nunavut has seen serious outbreaks among a small and scattered population to the land down under, which has watched it’s number of cases triple in just the last week, no place seems safe from outbreaks of the next big thing in highly contagious illness.

The formal announcement, likely to be made today, is sure to send some folks of a more worried demeanor running for the canned food aisle. But really, it’s just a sign that worldwide organizations are taking the possibility of a serious, wide scale outbreak of the disease seriously, and there’s not a thing wrong with that.

In a staggering display of timeliness, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have taken the first steps toward the development of a new way of treating influenza. Current flu treatments battle the virus by hobbling the neuriminidase, the N in the H1N1 flu virus, impairing it’s ability to leave infected cells and further replicate itself.

But they don’t do much about the H – that’s hemmaglutinnin, the protein that allows flu viruses to bind to cells in the nose, throat and lungs, enter them and infect them. If Robert Linhardt and his team continue having success in their research, that might not be true much longer. Using techniques from the young science of “click chemistry” the team has created anti-viral agents that look similar to the sialic acid that hemmaglutinin binds to on cell surfaces. The idea is that the virus will be fooled into attaching to the anti-viral agent rather than actual cells, rendering it impotent and unable to effectively reproduce and continuing infecting further cells. 

The study is in it’s inception for now, and likely won’t hit markets for some time. But this research marks a fascinating step forward in treating influenza, and a piece of recently rare good news about the flu.

And it wasn’t the only positive development this week, which also demonstrated that surgical masks may actually be an effective countermeasure to spreading influenza, as well as THE fashion statement of the early 21st century. 

And if that’s not enough good new for you, here’s a video of a guy catching ducklings as they follow their mother off the ledge they’ve been nested on. IOf you can’t enjoy that, I don’t know what to tell you.

It would appear that reports of the demise of the swine flu have been rather greatly exaggerated.

On the heels of the new H1N1 strain being confirmed in mainland China last week, more than 2,000 schools throughout Japan have closed their doors in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus. The worse news is that unlike previous cases found in Japan, this outbreak of flu has no clear connection to international travel, suggesting that the virus has already become self sustaining in the densely populated nation.

So what’s to be worried about? Probably nothing for the moment, as the A/H1N1 virus seems to be remaining highly contagious, but infrequently lethal. But it’s arrival in Asia carries with it the potential of what can only be described as a nightmare scenario.

The continuing spread of A/H1N1 throughout the world, even after the end of the traditional flu season, means that there may simply be very little we can do to prevent the continuing spread of this highly contagious strain, especially when a fresh flu season begins in earnest later this year.

Which isn’t the bad news.

The bad news is that the presence of the virus in Asia, especially in self perpetuation, means that an eventual meeting of the minds between swine flu and avian flu that remains endemic in parts of Asia is more or less a foregone conclusion. When that happens, there’s a chance for the two strains to hybridize, resulting in a new flu that combines the high human to human transmissibility of the swine flu and the staggering (60% +) human fatality rates of avian flu. Just how great that chance is is anyone’s guess. But World Health Organization Director – General Margaret Chan had this to say on the current flu situation, which she described as “the calm before the storm.”

“For the first time in humanity, we are seeing, or we may be seeing, pandemic influenza evolving in front of our eyes.”

 Now whether we can do anything effectively to prevent it is another matter.

Where's Your Messiah Now, Flanders?

The current count stands at 81 dead and over 1300 infected with swine flu, primarily in and around Mexico City – for now. The Terrifying Disease of the hour – I’m sure we all remember how avian flu was going to wipe out the human race, or West Nile virus before that – looks like it will either be a flash in the health news pan, or the end of the goddamn world, or something in between. All joking aside, I don’t have to tell anyone that flus can get nasty, and this one is a humdinger. It’s a never before seen strain of the H1N1 flu, which wiped out as many as 100 million people when it mutated into Spanish Influenza in 1918. It apparently contains RNA fragments from pigs, humans and birds, making it something of a wild card, and it has already shown the potential for passing from human to human. Worse news is the toll it’s taking – so far, most deaths have been among young adults, the demographic ordinarily least susceptible to common flu viruses.

This points to a developing pandemic, which would be particularly hard on young people with healthy immune systems, and could spread far and fast. Pandemic flus are also particularly lethal, and it’s not a good way to go, as instead of the flu killing you, victims are attacked by their own overzealous white blood cells. When you body sees a completely new strain of flu, it freaks the hell out and sends it’s entire arsenal against the virus. This has the rather unpleasant unintended side effect of producing huge excesses of body fluids. These fluids flood the lungs and drown sufferers from the inside. 

For right now, current flu treatments seem to be pretty effective in combating this strain of swine flu, so that’s something. But it couldn’t hurt to hold a good thought, take a vitamin and knock on wood tonight. Meanwhile keep checking back here for swine flu updates, robots, news from space and more – as long as the world as we know it keeps existing, you’ll be able to read all about it here.