We’re Doomed…

From guest blogger Other Lisa, cross-posted on her blog, The Paper Tiger

Mike Davis is an autodictat, a MacArthur Genius grant recipient, an unrepentant leftist, a great drinking buddy and an incredibly prolific author. His books range from social histories of Los Angeles to the global phenomenon of slums to children’s adventure stories. Mike has always been fascinated by the relationship between human society and natural ecosystems – in particular, how this interaction translates into disasters. Who else would write about tornadoes in Los Angeles? Who else even knew we’d had tornadoes in Los Angeles? In the same book, Ecology of Fear, Mike not only makes the case for “letting Malibu burn,” but devotes fifty pages or so to “the literary destruction of Los Angeles” – all those books and films in which LA is gleefully destroyed by some thing or another, and what this destruction signifies in the popular imagination.

So it was no great surprise to me that Mike has turned his attention to bird flu – and that what he has to say is not exactly optimistic. Tom Dispatch has posted a short excerpt from Mike’s new book, one which underlines how human arrogance and stupidity has left us woefully unprepared for an entirely predictable disaster:

The avian flu outbreak at Lake Qinghai was first identified by Chinese wildlife officials at the end of April. Initially it was confined to a small islet in the huge salt lake, where geese suddenly began to act spasmodically, then to collapse and die. By mid-May it had spread through the lake’s entire avian population, killing thousands of birds. An ornithologist called it “the biggest and most extensively mortal avian influenza event ever seen in wild birds.”

Chinese scientists, meanwhile, were horrified by the virulence of the new strain: when mice were infected they died even quicker than when injected with “genotype Z,” the fearsome H5N1 variant currently killing farmers and their children in Vietnam.

Yi Guan, leader of a famed team of avian flu researchers who have been fighting the pandemic menace since 1997, complained to the British Guardian in July about the lackadaisical response of Chinese authorities to the unprecedented biological conflagration at Lake Qinghai.

“They have taken almost no action to control this outbreak. They should have asked for international support. These birds will go to India and Bangladesh and there they will meet birds that come from Europe.” Yi Guan called for the creation of an international task force to monitor the wild bird pandemic, as well as the relaxation of rules that prevent the free movement of foreign scientists to outbreak zones in China.

In a paper published in the British science magazine Nature, Yi Guan and his associates also revealed that the Lake Qinghai strain was related to officially unreported recent outbreaks of H5N1 among birds in southern China. This would not be the first time that Chinese authorities have been charged with covering up an outbreak. They also lied about the nature and extent of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which originated in Guangdong but quickly spread to 25 other countries. As in the case of SARS’ whistleblowers, the Chinese bureaucracy is now trying to gag avian-flu scientists, shutting down one of Yi Guan’s laboratories at Shantou University and arming the conservative Agriculture Ministry with new powers over research.

That’s just the negligence on the Chinese side. There’s plenty of blame to go around:

The new U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told the Associated Press in early August that an influenza pandemic was now an “absolute certainty,” echoing repeated warnings from the World Health Organization that it was “inevitable.” Likewise Science magazine observed that expert opinion held the odds of a global outbreak as “100 percent.”

In the same grim spirit, the British press revealed that officials were scouring the country for suitable sites for mass mortuaries, based on official fears that avian flu could kill as many as 700,000 Britons. The Blair government is already conducting emergency simulations of a pandemic outbreak (“Operation Arctic Sea”) and is reported to have readied “Cobra” — a cabinet-level working group that coordinates government responses to national emergencies like the recent London bombings from a secret war room in Whitehall — to deal with an avian flu crisis.

Little of this Churchillian resolve is apparent in Washington. Although a sense of extreme urgency is evident in the National Institutes of Health where the czar for pandemic planning, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warns of “the mother of all emerging infections,” the White House has seemed even less perturbed by migrating plagues than by wanton carnage in Iraq.

As the President was packing for his long holiday in Texas, the Trust for America’s Health was warning that domestic preparations for a pandemic lagged far behind the energetic measures being undertaken in Britain and Canada, and that the administration had failed “to establish a cohesive, rapid and transparent U.S. pandemic strategy.”

That increasingly independent operator, Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), had already criticized the administration in an extraordinary (and under-reported) speech at Harvard at the beginning of June. Referring to Washington’s failure to stockpile an adequate supply of the crucial anti-viral oseltamivir (or Tamiflu), Frist sarcastically noted that “to acquire more anti-viral agent, we would need to get in line behind Britain and France and Canada and others who have tens of millions of doses on order.”

The New York Times on its July 17 editorial page, a May 26 special issue of Nature and the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs have also hammered away at Washington’s failure to stockpile enough scarce antivirals — current inventories cover less than 1% of the U.S. population — and to modernize vaccine production. Even a few prominent Senate Democrats have stirred into action, although none as boldly as Frist at Harvard.

The Department of Health and Human Services, in response, has sought to calm critics with recent hikes in spending on vaccine research and antiviral stockpiles. There has also been much official and media ballyhoo about the announcement of a series of successful tests in early August of an experimental avian flu vaccine.

But there is no guarantee that the vaccine prototype, based on a “reverse-genetically-engineered” strain of H5N1, will actually be effective against a pandemic strain with different genes and proteins. Moreover, trial success was based upon the administration of two doses plus a booster. Since the government has only ordered 2 million doses of the vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, this may provide protection for only 450,000 people. As one researcher told Science magazine, “it’s a vaccine for the happy few.”

Thanks to Susan Hu of the Booman Tribune and Dem from CT of The Next Hurrah for their invaluable assistance. For comprehensive and constantly updated information about all forms of flu and what is and isn’t being done, check out the Flu Wiki …and for an informed and refreshing take on world events, I highly recommend the Booman Tribune and its sister site, the European Tribune

The Discussion: 13 Comments

I’m quite worried about the recent developements. As the WHO says, the question is not if but rather when an influenza pandemic will happen. Last pandemic was 1968 with 700000 dead worldwide and statistics say one occures every 27,5 years, so the next one is overdue.

August 20, 2005 @ 2:24 am | Comment

The policy of the German states is not sufficiant either, as they only bought neuraminidase inhibitors for 10 to 15% of the population, while the WHO’s recommendation is 25% and the one of the German National Pandemic Plan 20%.

August 20, 2005 @ 2:25 am | Comment

Off to the pharmac*y to buy my owne dos*e.

August 20, 2005 @ 2:26 am | Comment

Ready for a desaster scenario? Here is a fictive blog about a hopefully fictive outbreak of an influenza pandemic published in Nature:

August 20, 2005 @ 4:22 am | Comment

No hope for a dose…unless you can get your hands on Tamiflu. And even then you better pray it can cover whatever mutation the disease chooses to take.

You’d do better to stay in shape, keep two weeks of water, food, and fuel…not to survive the panic of a true pandemic, but to last you long enough to get you to your refuge in the country, and have a tazer handy.

Barring this options you can continue as before because there is little we can do. We survived SARS we can survive this, too…

August 20, 2005 @ 10:14 am | Comment

my plan is to stay at home and have someone throw take-out meals over the fence…

August 20, 2005 @ 11:26 am | Comment


I also subscribe to a “When” not “If” attitude to China-borne diseases.

Even now we have the Pig Disease (covered extensively on Horse’s Mouth) and the eel warnings going on at the moment, (I’ll paste the latest eel article from todday’s SCMP below).

Thanks god for Hong Kong. Once a disease reaches HK or at least reaches the ears of HK’s notorious journalists China seems to quickly change its tune. Long live Hong Kong.

August 20, 2005 @ 11:22 pm | Comment

China and their bloody state secrets. From today’s SCMP:
Mainland didn’t relay eel warning

Beijing sees health alerts as national secrets and HK is too anxious to give face, legislator says

Health officials yesterday admitted the mainland had failed to inform them of a nationwide alert on the carcinogenic chemical malachite green, prompting calls for a faster health link to be established.

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department director Gregory Leung Wing-lup admitted that the mainland never informed Hong Kong of an urgent nationwide health alert issued in July on eels containing malachite green. The government had not even been aware the chemical had been banned from use by fish farmers on the mainland since 2002.

Dr Kwok, however, believes the mix-up occurred because the mainland considered health alerts to be “national secrets” and the Hong Kong government did not want to react to health scares concerning the mainland for fear of damaging relations.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s health chief advised the public against eating eels and eel products after recalls in Guangdong.

August 20, 2005 @ 11:27 pm | Comment


August 21, 2005 @ 12:27 am | Comment

If you eat Japanese food, you’re guaranteed to eat eel in some shape or form.

August 21, 2005 @ 12:56 am | Comment

I can’t remember where I read it, but awhile back I came across an article that speculated the reason we are facing so many strange new viruses is because of the rapid deforestation that has been taking place.

According to the article, by destroying rainforests, we are just stirring up viruses that have laid dormant in the earth for thousands of years.

It’s really quite an interesting concept if you think about it because we also find many of our new cures in the rain forrests.

August 21, 2005 @ 1:52 am | Comment


Oh yeah, I’ve heard that theory as well, and in a number of different places. The deforestation gets people and monkeys in closer contact – monkeys are thought to be the “disease reservoir” for a variety of nasty hemmoraigic (excuse my spelling) diseases, like Ebola…

August 21, 2005 @ 2:06 am | Comment

One of the books on Bush’s summer reading list is about the Spanish Flu pandemic. Depending on the seriousness of the issue (although it definitely looks more serious, the media have been saying this would happen every year since the late 90’s), there may be a shift in September.

August 21, 2005 @ 1:41 pm | Comment

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