An outbreak of a deadly disease, as shown in the fictitious movie, “Contagion,” could infect the world’s population in a matter of weeks.
The scary thing is, it’s plausible, according to BYU professor David Busath. Fortunately, scientists are working on new ways to combat the spread of viruses.
Busath spoke at a physiology and developmental biology department seminar last week about current efforts to develop new anti-viral drugs that would inhibit a viral disease’s ability to spread. Using a combination of three anti-viral treatments could severely inhibit a flu virus’s ability to reproduce and consequently save lives, he said.
On average, the flu causes some 36,000 deaths in America each year. In light of recent outbreaks, such as the 2009 Swine Flu that made headlines when it killed nearly 10,000, and the most recent flu pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu that infected nearly 500 million and killed 3 percent of the world’s population, Busath said the media has downplayed the potential severity of the flu.
“We’re told to get our flu shots, but that if you do get [the flu], it’s just like getting the cold,” Busath said.
He said an anti-viral drug called Amantadine had been developed to block a channel in viral membranes that plays a critical role in viral reproduction. However, because the drug came with an alarming list of symptoms, physicians generally prescribed Amantadine to patients with a compromised immune system, such as the very young or very old.
Eventually, a mutation that caused the flu virus to become resistant to Amantadine surfaced, and before long the mutation became the norm in the majority of the world’s flu viruses, Busath said. By 2009, Amantadine was no longer considered effective for combating the flu.
Despite Amantadine’s failure to prove a long-term solution to preventing flu pandemics — which could spread and infect thousands before a vaccine could be developed — work on developing an anti-viral to combat flu continues, Busath said. Currently, some scientists are developing a triple anti-viral treatment that would use three anti-viral drugs to block viral reproduction in three different ways to maximize the treatment’s success.
“If the virus is blocked in three ways instead of one, it is more likely that the virus will be unable to escape,” Busath said.
Researchers at BYU continue to work on finding drugs that would fill that final position Amantadine would have taken had the mutation not taken place. Busath concluded that there is hope the next flu outbreak will be stopped before causing thousands of deaths.