Inside the Lab that First Spotted Swine Flu

POSTED: Monday, October 26, 2009 - 7:42am

UPDATED: Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 11:57pm

Every day, scientists at Brooks City-Base test thousands of samples taken from all over the world for viruses. But last spring, they found something that would change the way the world looks at the flu.

The job of the Virology Laboratory at Brooks City-Base is to collect samples taken from sick people and test them for various strains of the flu. "This is an influenza-surveillance lab," said Linda Canas, supervisor of the Brooks City-Base Virology Department. "So, we have a pandemic plan. And we were prepared for something to happen, and it happened."

It was a normal day back in April. The lab techs were working away on their samples, when two from San Antonio came back with unusual results. "We knew of three common influenza viruses that commonly infected humans, explained Major Thomas Gibbons of the Molecular Diagnostics Department of Brooks City-Base. "Influenza AH1, Influenza AH3, and Influenza B. This didn't look anything like those three viruses."

The lab had stumbled upon something new. "Anytime you find something that is completely unknown to the human race, you let the CDC know immediately," said Major Gibbons. So, they did. "And the rest is history," he added. Now, the they see H1N1 every day.

Lab tech are looking for any kind of damage to the tissue in the samples. They are getting about 3,000 samples a month, and the majority, more than 60 percent, are turning out to be positive for H1N1. "It is neat to know that we were among the first scientists in the world to identify an influenza strain that was unknown to the human race before april of 2009," said Major Gibbons.

At the same time the scientists at Brooks City-Base discovered the H1N1 strain, two other strains were found at a U.S. Navy lab in San Diego around the same time. It was those initial four samples that kicked off the firestorm we've come to know as the world's latest pandemic.