Q: It depends on further mutations?
Y.G.: It depends on mutations and whether the virus further reassorts with other viruses—like H5N1. That could be a super nightmare for the whole world.
Q: You’re talking about the Armageddon virus?
Y.G.: The chance is very, very low that these two viruses will mix together, but we cannot rule out the possibility. Now, H5N1 is in more than 60 countries. It’s a panzootic, present everywhere except North America.
Q: If the nightmare comes true?
Y.G.: If that happens, I will retire immediately and lock myself in the P3 lab. H5N1 kills half the people it infects. Even if you inject yourself with a vaccine, it may be too late. Maybe in just a couple hours it takes your life.
Sounds pretty scary, and it could be... but you'll recall that he said the chance of it happening is very, very low.
This is a good illustration of the difference between a hazard (something that can cause harm) and a risk (the likelihood of that harm actually occurring).
An H5N1/H1N1 recombinant virus represents a serious hazard, but the risk of it actually happening is thankfully rather low.
That doesn't mean we can afford to take our eyes off the ball, however. The H5N1 virus is no less of a threat today than it was before the H1N1 outbreak began, and we ignore it at our peril. President Obama says that the President of the United States needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and he's right. Here's to hoping the global public health preparedness community can do the same.