March 12, 2010
Swine flu kept the world in suspense for almost a year. A massive vaccination campaign was mounted to put a stop to the anticipated pandemic. But, as it turned out, it was a relatively harmless strain of the flu virus. How, and why, did the world overreact? A reconstruction. By SPIEGEL staff.
At first things did not look good for Edgar. The five-year-old boy had a high fever. He’d lost his appetite, his throat was burning and his entire body ached.
The people in the Mexican village of La Gloria were quick to blame the pigs. They had long been convinced that the animals were a curse. In the nearby town of Perote, half a million hogs were being fattened for slaughter. The wind carried the stench through the narrow streets of the surrounding villages. No one was very surprised when Edgar Hernandez fell ill.
But then, after only four days, the boy recovered. His illness disappeared as quickly as it had started. It turned out to be nothing more than the flu, and the people of La Gloria soon forgot about it.
It wasn’t until several weeks later that a laboratory in Canada tested a mucosal smear taken from the boy. The results made him famous. Edgar didn’t have an ordinary flu, but had been infected with a new kind of pathogen, the swine flu virus. Edgar went down in history as niño cero, “boy zero,” the first person to fall ill with the new plague.
The Mexican boy’s infection was mild, like an overwhelming majority of the millions of cases that would occur worldwide in the coming months. The new virus would probably have attracted far less attention if it hadn’t been for modern molecular medicine, with its genetic analyses, antibody tests and reference laboratories. The swine flu would have conquered the world, and no doctor would have noticed.
But the world did notice, largely because of high-tech medicine and the vaccine industry. From Ebola to SARS to the avian flu, epidemiologists, the media, doctors and the pharmaceutical lobby have systematically attuned the world to grim catastrophic scenarios and the dangers of new, menacing infectious diseases.
None of these diseases receives more attention than influenza. Researchers in more than 130 laboratories in 102 countries are constantly on the lookout for new flu pathogens. Entire careers and institutions, and a lot of money, depend on the outcomes of their work. “Sometimes you get the feeling that there is a whole industry almost waiting for a pandemic to occur,” says flu expert Tom Jefferson, from an international health nonprofit called the Cochrane Collaboration. “And all it took was one of these influenza viruses to mutate to start the machine grinding.”
Now turned up, the machinery was set into motion. Researchers got to work examining the molecular structure of the virus. The pharmaceutical industry started to develop vaccines. Government agencies laid out disaster plans. There was only one thing that everyone was ignoring: The new pathogen was, in fact, relatively harmless.
How did all this happen?