Looking more closely at the some of the coverage of swine flu, I recognized the (probable) handiwork of a CDC researcher from a lecture I covered recently at the New York Academy of Sciences about biological imaging.
Amazingly this technology (negative stained transmission electron micrograhs) actually dates back to the 1950s, but it’s fast and still the standard for the quick identification of emerging diseases like H1N1. But identification of viruses this way is still an art, as Charles Humphrey of the CDC pointed out. You can’t just plug an image into a computer and get a machine to identify what kind of virus it most closely matches. The technique requires real people with experience to gather the images and then to interpret them based on patterns of known viruses.
I imagine that Humphrey and his colleagues have been burning some serious midnight oil over the last few weeks.