Renowned St. Jude virus researcher speaks about coronavirus

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dr. Robert Webster has been retired for years, but his research at St. Jude Children’s Hospital is considered groundbreaking.

He’s widely credited with tracing influenza in humans to birds.

COVID-19 is slightly different from anything he’s studied.

“That virus comes from bats,” Webster said.

The novel coronavirus is also proving to be far more deadly than influenza.

There have been more than 2,800 deaths out of 160,000 confirmed cases in the U.S.

By comparison, more than 34,000 people died of influenza in the U.S. in the 2018-19 flu season out of more than 35 million people who contracted the flu. That’s a 1.8% mortality rate for coronavirus, compared to 0.1% for the flu.

“The bird flu that I’ve worked on for many, many years was an even more dangerous virus in that it kills a lot of people, but that virus didn’t learn to spread human-to-human,” Webster said.

From the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 to the current crisis, Webster said the response is gradually improving.

“We’re doing a little better each time, but we were not well prepared,” he said.

Webster said the only way to prevent humans from contracting coronavirus or influenza is to close live animal markets.

“As long as we put ourselves in close contact with these animals, eventually these transmissions will occur,” Webster said.

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