Robert Webster an expert on flu and wild birds?

Keep seeing virologist Robert Webster cited as an "expert"; meanwhile an impression that ornithology is somehow of little importance in studying H5N1 and wild birds. Indeed the renowned Dr Webster has done much research, and some years ago - apparently - came up with notion that wild birds are flu reservoirs.

Profile: Robert Webster

But, a major case of Big Fish in Small Pond Syndrome? Much to question from Dr Webster, I think.

- For instance, he seems to treat H5N1 as a chemical with miraculous properties, not subject to natural selection. How else to explain notions re highly pathogenic avian influenza becoming endemic in wild birds?

- we know of it killing wild birds, yet tiny number of apparently healthy birds with H5N1.

Also, seems no other explanation for his being quoted re warning the world that H5N1 could kill up to 50% of human population.

- Doesn't seem to think H5N1's tendency to concentrate in trachea of ducks suggests it will be highly inefficient at transmitting in the wild (wild bird flus having evolved to use far more efficient faeces to water to bills mechanism, which matters less in poultry farms)

- Supposedly an expert on flu and wild birds, yet seems unable to identify birds (why else a paper with "wild ducks"?) Nor to bother with knowledge of migration routes and timings; unfazed by fact no known routes link Poyang and Qinghai in China, say.

"They're going to spread this ... thing further and further across central Asia and Europe and who knows where," said Robert G Webster of the St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, an author of a report released on Wednesday by the journal Nature.

Another report, released by the journal Science, said the finding of the H5N1 infection in migrant birds at Qinghai Lake in western China "indicates that this virus has the potential to be a global threat".

http://www.news24.com/World/News/Birds-may-spread-deadly-flu-20050706

- V odd when a Kuwait flamingo had H5N1, Webster said showed it was migrating towards Africa; yet this was reportedly a captive bird.

- Readily accepted, from tiny evidence, H5N1 was in the wild birds. Yet now seems to have decided that it might in future become endemic in wild birds.

- Quoted as saying something re H5N1 becoming widespread in wild ducks in Russia. Evidence for this being??

Sorry, but to me this does not smack of expertise.

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There is a further profile about "The Flu Hunter"
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/issues/2006/january/flu.php?page=1

Hi Coleman:

Thanks for this.

Not too insightful, I thought; would be good to see Dr W quizzed regarding natural selection, and (assuming he made claim before this article went to press) his notion half the world population could die.

Martin

Here are comments I've been sent by ornithologist who attended recent conference on wild birds and flu in Rome:

Robert Webster is "Mr Flu" and really knows his stuff, constantly being referred to by other virologists, 30 odd years of work. He knows what he's on about with regard to viruses. His team have been working on "ducks" for a long time but he's no birder, that's for sure. He and his team are genuinly concerned that this virus is breaking all the rules and they are convinced that wild birds "have a role" in this. There is growing evidence that this virus exists in wild birds, all those duck deaths in western europe (curious though that Sweden has so many and Finland none, the Swedes perplexed by this) and now a positive wild Magpie close to a poultry positive in Denmark. There should have been more ornithologists there... RSPB and BirdLife asking the right questions and making the right statements. Anyway, it's quite clear to all concerned that this is a poultry problem and not a wildbird issue. This will come through loud and clear in the final utterences from the conference. You'll see that there are still "issues" regarding the role of wildbirds. The conference statement will also make it loud and clear that shooting wildbirds, draining wetlands, cutting trees etc is NOT the way to go. The US will be sampling >80,000 wildbirds in the coming months. Europe has already sampled 40 odd thousand and will continue to do this. Thailand and South Korea have of course shown the world it can be controlled in poultry. Talked to the Thai rep at the meeting, they well aware and on top of the poultry trade. Everyone concerned about what's happening in Indonesia and the governments lack of direction. I guess the real concern is that this virus is VERY ACTIVE and the more chance it gets to expand into and within populations the more possibilities there are of a major outbreak and the chance of recombination within humans. FRom "our" point of view it's finally moving in the right direction and FAO are almost admitting they got it wrong !!

I replied:

I know Webster knows much re viruses, but ignoring natural selection seems completely wrong-headed. His notion re 50% of world population perhaps dying just wacky.

Yes, I know re Europe; but again, it's duck (and other bird) deaths. Why so much ignoring of situation in e Asia - Japan, Korea, Hong Kong among places with surveillance, no H5N1 in migratory wild waterbirds this past winter. (An egret in HK maybe resident; at time some landbirds affected, I believe linked to markets - were poultry cases too.) Also wrong-headed to ignore this.

[With Europe an anomaly, maybe some linkage to some waterbirds often living close to humans; I wonder too if some linkage to fish farming, say Romania, which has many outbreaks in poultry.]

Being stubborn is one thing, but for Webster to ignore so much, to not enter into dialogue with birding community, seems very lacking (no ornithologist cited on paper re Poyang ducks etc). I've emailed him and others; had replies from Guan Yi, spoke to Malik Peiris over the phone, Webster just some brief missive citing his being a bigwig.

Too bad re not enough ornithologists at conference; too bad too that some w funding from FAO prepared to toe and tout the line (yellow-billed magpie tester, stand up please!).

Good, though, that things changing re blame the birds. ("dead birds don't fly" said Lubroth!; but same tune from Domenech).

But FAO refusal to (that we know of) investigate potential role of integrated fish farming verges on criminal. Might help explain the virus persisting and being so widespread in Indonesia - you've perhaps seen my shots of catfish feasting on chicken carcasses. Maybe helps explain persistence in eastern Europe, and elsewhere (Vietnam, say, where at one point thought to have been eradicated, but virus resurfaced. Webster blames ducks - of course! And domestic ducks do play some role, shown in Thailand; but even in this case, seemed virus tending to die out. It has better survival in warm water than regular bird flus, maybe an adaptation to ponds in onr near the tropics.)

quick reply just in:

Fish farming never got a mention !!! Webster stated that fish cannot get HPAI, they have their own set of viruses which are quite different.

to which I've sent:

Webster's comment is ridiculous. Argument re fish farms is not re fish catching flu, but about dumping lots of H5N1 into fish farms. Webster has found this survives better in warm water, yet apparently hasn't thought why this might be - again, mark of a man to whom natural selection is of no consequence. (Nor other people's views; unless they happen to be supporting his research?)

For 2003/04 in Asia, I wrote re migratory bird routes/timings not fitting H5N1 spread. V tiresome to have had to repeat these arguments, while still belief by too many in tooth fairy bird.