In the center of the sprawling Atlanta campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sits Building 17, otherwise known as the infectious disease laboratory. Hop in the elevator and you'll quickly arrive at flu central.
Here, behind locked doors and a biohazard sign, are some of the most sophisticated labs in the world. This is where scientists routinely work with the flu virus.
Now, they're racing to unravel the make-up of this strain never seen before: a combination of swine, avian and human flu viruses.
Dr. Michael Shaw, the associate director for laboratory science in the CDC's influenza division and the point man overseeing the massive effort to understand this new public health threat, greets visitors sporting a container of hand sanitizer. Shaw, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular cell biology, has been working with influenza for more than 30 years, the last 16 of them at the CDC.
In normal times, Shaw has 100 researchers working in his labs. Now he has so many he can't count them all. The scientists are on 24-hour stand-by, waiting for flu samples. Many of the samples have come from Mexico, where the outbreak apparently began.
"We go into full crisis mode at that point, make arrangement with customs to let it get through as quickly as possible," Shaw said. "The airlines are notified, and in certain cases we can even send down a special airplane. So far we haven't had to resort to that from specimens coming from Mexico."
Shaw first became interested in studying flu viruses during another swine flu outbreak back in 1976. Then President Ford authorized a massive immunization program after soldiers at Fort Dix came down with a previously unknown swine flu. One soldier died, and 40 million Americans were immunized. The program was halted after the vaccine itself was blamed for more than two dozen deaths.
Shaw, then a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was one of those who received the vaccine. That propelled him, he said, into influenza research. He wryly noted that this latest outbreak "is like coming full circle."
Work on any samples that come to the CDC's infectious disease lab begin immediately after they are received.
"Regardless of the time -- day or night -- someone will be here to receive it and start the process, because clearly people want results as quickly as possible," Shaw said.
And initial results do come quickly, in as little as four hours. Confirmatory tests take 12 to 14 hours.
The incoming samples began as a trickle, but now it has turned into a daily flood, Shaw said.
"Right now it's approaching anywhere between 50 and 100, and it's increasing steadily," he explained. "They first starting coming in one and two, and the curve is just going up with no sign of abating."
This intensive activity is even evident in the hallways, which are stacked with boxes of extra supplies rushed in for the testing.
Researchers here aren't just confirming cases; they are also grappling with the more challenging task of unraveling the virus' make-up and preparing a strain suitable for developing a vaccine.