UC Davis explains swine flu anatomy

April 28, 2009 7:05:46 PM PDT
The California Department of Food and Agriculture is taking swine flu so seriously that it is ordering testing on any pig with flu-like symptoms. So far, none have tested positive, which does not surprise pork producers or researchers. Regardless, the actual role of swine in this virus is somewhat miscast.

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If the actual swine flu virus bears a physical resemblance to the animal for which it is named, then maybe you have been looking at too many ink blots.

"Is it fair to call this the swine flu?" asked ABC7's Wayne Freedman.
"Absolutely not," said Kent Parker.

Parker runs the swine lab at U.C. Davis which is home to hundreds of pigs -- none of which are infected by the flu. In fact, no one knows of a pig in the state that is.

"The National Pork Producers since Monday, have been trying to change the name to the 'hybrid flu,'" said Parker.

As researchers explain it, the only real connection between pigs and this swine flu is at the genetic level.

"The sugars are the way the virus attaches to the cell to gain entry," said U.C. Davis biologist Dr. Katherine Radke, Ph.D.

As Dr. Radke explains it, sugars in proteins on tissues in their noses make pigs uniquely susceptible to both bird flues and human ones. Dr. Christian Sandrock describes this strain as a new twist on the old and pigs as being like giant, viral mixing bowls.

"If a pig gets infected by a pig strain, and then they might have an infected chicken on the farm that would pass a bird strain, those two will mix in a single cell. Pick some genes from one, and then the other, and create a new virus," said Sandrock.

It is a virus for which the human race has no immunity, nor a vaccine, and leads to worries about another worldwide pandemic that could take millions of lives. If it is not this bug, there will be another -- hence all of the concern.

"So it is kind of like an earthquake. You know they will happen, naturally they happen, you just don't know when. It's the same with a pandemic. As to where, who dies, and how many, that's really the tough question, and it's always tough to know," said Sandrock.

By then, the name, whether swine, or avian, or human -- will be academic.

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