A precious package arrived at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last Thursday afternoon.
Inside, packed in dry ice to keep it frozen, was a vial containing millions of H7N9 viruses derived from a 35-year-old Chinese housewife who died last Tuesday of respiratory and kidney failure.
The package was addressed to the CDC’s top flu virologist,Nancy Cox. “Once we got the virus, we took it immediately to the appropriate level of biocontainment,” Cox tells Shots.
That would be a so-called biosafety level 3 lab, where researchers can keep this demonstrably dangerous virus under tight control.
"We unpacked it from the various levels of protection — that is, containers in which it is placed in order to ensure that it doesn’t spill," Cox says. "And then the work actually began."
There’s a lot of urgent work to do, according to scientists in far-flung labs, who also got samples of the virus at the end of last week.
In fact, the urgency increased this weekend with the discovery that a 7-year-old girl in Beijing fell ill with this new bird flu last Thursday. She was the daughter of poultry sellers, and contact with poultry may be the way many people have become infected.
She’s reportedly in stable condition, but the fact that the virus has begun to sicken people nearly 700 miles from the epidemic’s epicenter in Shanghai is a strong signal that the virus will not be contained to one region of China — and perhaps not to China.
As of Monday morning, the current caseload of the new flu has climbed passed 60. Fourteen people have died, and most of the survivors have gotten severely ill.
Photograph by AFP/Getty Images