Dead pigs in China, evil factory farms in Mexico and an Al Qaeda plot involving Mexican drug cartels are a few wild theories seeking to explain a deadly swine flu outbreak that has killed up to 176 people.
Nobody knows for sure but scientists say the origins are in fact far less sinister and are likely explained by the ability of viruses to mutate and jump from species to species as animals and people increasingly live closer to each other.
“The pig has been considered the mixing bowl of influenza viruses. Both avian flu and pig flu viruses have spread via the pig to humans,” Paul Yeo, a virologist at Durham University in Britain, said on Thursday.
“The problem now with this virus is that it has picked up a mixture of elements, now including human elements. It’s a complex virus.”
Twelve countries have confirmed cases of the H1N1 strain, a new infection that has brought the world to the brink of a pandemic.
Finding the source of a new virus is key for scientists because understanding how it jumped to humans can lead to better drugs and vaccines as well as help prevent future outbreaks.
But one link experts probably won’t be exploring is an Internet report charging that Mexican drug cartels working with al Qaeda unleashed the swine flu.
“The claim of the conspiracy theorists is that this new combination could not have occurred naturally, but this is not true,” the New Scientist’s biology editor Michael Le Page wrote.
“Flu viruses consisting of a mixture of human, swine and bird strains have been found before.”
Sound science, however, is no match for the Internet and unsubstantiated media reports when it comes to providing a forum for ideas that have forced responses from governments and companies alike.