Faces of the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS)

Wearing my red laboratory coat at the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis Tennessee

© St Jude Children’s Research Hospital

My career as an influenza virologist was decided for me the day I arrived at the Australian National University from New Zealand as a graduate student in 1959. Frank Fenner informed me that I would work on influenza with Professor Fazekas, not on myxomatosis as I had expected .

The recent Asian H2N2 influenza pandemic in 1957 had spurred interest in the origin of pandemic influenza viruses: did these viruses by excessive mutation or was there an undetermined animal reservoir?

A wild turkey in flight

© Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons

It was Helio Pereira and Bella Tumova who introduced me to GISN (Global Influenza Surveillance Network), the predecessor of GISRS. Helio had a huge collection of influenza viruses from lower animals and birds, and Bela had prepared rat antisera to the H2N2 pandemic virus. I asked Helio if I could come to the World Influenza Center at Mill Hill in 1966 to determine if any of these viruses might be related to the H2N2 pandemic.

Working at Mill Hill we found that an influenza virus isolated from turkeys in Massachusetts in 1965 was serologically closely related to the 1957 pandemic H2N2 virus and shared the N2 neuraminidase. This finding provided some of the first information indicating the possible origin of genomic segments of pandemic influenza viruses of humans.

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef: isolated islands with sandy cays surrounded by huge coral reefs.

© Grame Laver

Knowing that influenza had killed terns in South Africa in 1961, while walking on an Australian Beach with Graeme Laver in the late 1960s littered with dead muttonbirds (Puffinus pacificus), we jokingly postulated that they had died of flu. After returning to the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra we approached the head of the microbiology department with a proposal to sample the mutton birds on the Great Barrier Reef islands, where the nested birds and raised their young. The immediate response was “You have got to be joking… a scientific expedition my foot! More like a junket to take your family and friends on a holiday on the Great Barrier Reef!” The chairman was largely correct, but we did not give up trying to find support.

We sent the proposal to Martin Kaplan at WHO, who was part of the Global Influenza Surveillance Network (GISN-the predecessor of today’s GISRS) and a proponent of animal reservoirs of influenza viruses. We were delighted to receive a positive response and support of $500 for the proposal. The Australian National University decided that there was a scientific aspect to the proposal and provided a station wagon for traveling the 1,500 kilometers from Canberra to Gladstone, the nearest port in Queensland to the Great Barrier Reef Islands.

“The wrong end of the duck”. For many years Graeme Laver (left) and Rob Webster (right) swabbed the upper respiratory tract of birds for influenza.

© The Australian National University

The first year Graeme found serological evidence of influenza antibodies in the mutton birds to influenza neuraminidase. It was then necessary to go back the next year to try to isolate the viruses. Once we had shown that the site of replication of avian Influenza viruses was the intestinal tract of birds, we realized that we had been sampling the wrong end of the bird. After much research we isolated multiple influenza viruses.

Subsequent surveillance studies at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis Tennessee of samples collected from Canadian wild ducks and migratory shorebirds from Delaware Bay (ruddy turnstone, red knot) revealed that all known influenza A viruses (at the time) including several new subtypes could be isolated from wild aquatic birds, supporting the notion that these birds are a natural reservoir of influenza viruses.

The discovery of the natural reservoirs of influenza viruses in wild aquatic birds resulted from the wisdom and support of GISN and WHO. It is probable that the reservoir of influenza A viruses could have been elucidated eventually, but it was GISN, the predecessor of GISRS that “primed the pump” and supported surveillance in migratory waterfowl.

Live bird market in Hong Kong, chickens and ducks together on top of a cage.

©Rob Webster

After visiting China in 1972 and observing live bird markets, I realized that this was an optimal site for influenza virus surveillance. When the National Institutes of Health of the United States of America issued a request to “elucidate the origin of pandemic influenza” I established a collaboration with Professor Kennedy Shortridge in Hong Kong to survey the live bird markets. Shortridge isolated the viruses, and we identified all known subtypes of influenza A viruses and additional new subtypes mainly from the ducks in the markets. When a child in Hong Kong died of infection with an avian H5N1 virus in May 1997 we knew exactly where to find the virus.

St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the site of the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals

© St Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Perhaps the greatest moment in my life was when I received an invitation from WHO for St Jude to join the network and become a Collaborating Center on the Ecology of Influenza Viruses in Lower Animals and Birds. Participation in the network has continued to the present time and served to open doors for collaborations throughout the world. Dr Richard J Webby continued the global surveillance for influenza viruses in lower animals and birds after I retired as director in 2008.

On the beach of Delaware Bay

© St Jude Children’s Research Hospital

In recognition of my contributions, I was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society (FRS) and the National Academy of Science (FNASc). However, I feel that my many international colleagues through the GISRS network together with the many postdoctoral fellows, students and coworkers I have worked with also deserve the credit and thanks for these awards.

The GISRS network has served as a model of international collaboration; it has been an honor and privilege to be a part of this network as it celebrates its 70th Anniversary.