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UA biologist says swine flu outbreak dates to September

Citizen Staff Writer



As it turns out, the recent strain of swine flu has made people sick for far longer than many scientists have thought.

By studying the genes of the virus, University of Arizona biologist Michael Worobey and 10 other scientists from around the world have traced the outbreak’s rather humble beginnings to September, months before the media began reporting on the outbreak in Mexico.

Though new to humans, this strain of swine flu evolved from a variety of influenza viruses already well-known to researchers, Worobey and his colleagues determined this week.

“We’ve kind of shown conclusively that these are pig viruses,” Worobey said Thursday.

The UA professor and other scientists – some from as far away as the United Kingdom and Hong Kong – have published their findings online on a “wiki,” a Web site on which users can post and edit information.

“It’s like being in the same office,” Worobey said. “You’re able to critique and learn from stuff really quickly.”

Typically, scientists might sit on this kind of information and publish it later in an academic journal, the biologist said of the online group’s swine flu research. Worobey and his band of virus hunters thought providing real-time information might help epidemiologists avert a potential catastrophe.

Health officials in Arizona have confirmed 130 cases of swine flu – 22 in Pima County.

Nationwide, the virus has infected nearly 900 people in 41 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Epidemiologists have diagnosed nearly 2,400 people in 24 countries with swine flu, the World Health Organization reported Thursday.

In the event of a pandemic, WHO officials warned that as many as 2 billion could contract the virus.

From his reading of the data, however, Worobey doubts this iteration of swine flu poses such a dire threat.

Worobey, who has taught at UA since 2003, has spent much of his time studying the HIV virus that can cause AIDS. In 2007, he published findings that showed the HIV virus in the U.S. as early as 1969 – more than a decade before scientists had thought.

Worobey draws a common conclusion from his HIV and flu studies: “Epidemics take a long time to build up from the first case.”

Worobey and his colleagues will continue tracking the swine flu, trying to predict how it might evolve in the coming months.

“Everything we’ve seen so far is that it’s evolving the same way as the seasonal flu,” Worobey said.

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