H1N1 virus research underway at UCSF

June 10, 2009 7:04:15 PM PDT
The World Health Organization is getting ready to declare an H1N1 swine flu pandemic. The potential for an increase in the threat level comes as Bay Area researchers are trying to learn everything they can about the virus.

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The H1N1 virus is a new strain of influenza that scientists have not seen before, and a local researcher and two colleagues from Mexico are teaming up to try to understand its origin and evolution.

UCSF virologist Dr. Charles Chiu is one of the nation's leading researchers of the H1N1 virus. He has collected samples of the flu strain from all over North America.

"One of the big worries once there's evidence of a global pandemic is that this particular virus, or this particular strain, may mutate in such a way as to become more virulent," said Dr. Chiu.

The H1N1 virus has caused 140 deaths including five in California. More than 26,000 people in 73 countries have been infected.

The World Health Organization now appears ready to raise the threat level from five to six -- the highest in 41 years.

"We are in a situation which is really moving towards, more or less a pandemic type situation," said the organization's Dr. Keiji Fukuda.

At the UCSF lab, researchers from Mexico have joined Dr. Chiu. They are sharing their samples and using his state of the art technology to map the genetic structure of the virus, see if it's changing, and if it could become resistant to drugs like Tamiflu. Because it is believed the virus originated in Mexico, scientist Maria Soto Del Rio says she feels an extra push.

"It like pushes us to work more and more every day to do our work better in order to maybe help not only our people, our citizens, but also trying to develop a new strategy of diagnosis," said Soto Del Rio.

Scientists stress if the World Health Organization classifies the H1N1 virus as a global pandemic, it does not mean the severity of the situation has increased, rather that the virus is spreading to more regions of the world.

"I think it's important that the public health agencies, as well as the public in general, that they do not overreact," said Dr. Chiu.

Dr. Chiu expects to have some preliminary answers to his scientific questions about the virus in the next three or four weeks -- answers he believes could help the nation be better prepared for the flu season this winter.

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