Going Viral

The Extinction Chronicles

In 2006, the Smithsonian Institute dubbed Balclutha-born Prof Robert Webster the "Flu Hunter" for...

by Bruce Munro
In 2006, the Smithsonian Institute dubbed Balclutha-born Prof Robert Webster the “Flu Hunter” for his significant, decades-long contribution to understanding and fighting influenza. Photo: ODT files

Serendipity has marked the distinguished career of Prof Robert Webster’s international fight against the deadly influenza virus. 

Similarly, coincidences will cause the next monster influenza epidemic, for which we are woefully unprepared, the former Otago researcher tells Bruce Munro.

It is hard to believe that the erudite and engaging voice on the phone belongs to an 86-year-old.

But there is no denying that renowned virologist Prof Robert Webster, on a call from his home in Memphis, Tennessee, was born in Balclutha, Otago, in 1932. Nor that the story he is recounting, of a surprising yet definitive moment in the battle against influenza, happened half a century ago, to him.

“It started off, more or less, as a joke,” Prof Webster…

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