New scientific discoveries keep eating away at the prophecy that “bird flu,” avian influenza type H5N1, will become readily transmissible from human to human and unleash a disastrous pandemic. This leaves little but rhetoric and those big, terrifying, huge, terrifying (Did I already say that?) numbers that panic purveyors throw around based on nothing more than extrapolations from baselines of their own choosing.
* “Flu Pandemic Could Kill 150 Million, U.N. Warns.” (Actually, a single UN official offered a range of “5 million to 150 million,” but the media aren’t too keen on ranges.)
* Laurie Garrett, former Newsday reporter, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Paul Ehrlich of pandemics (always wrong; always rewarded for it), speaks of H5N1 as a “tidal wave over humanity.”
* University of Minnesota School of Public Health professor Michael Osterholm estimated180-360 million deaths worldwide simply by extrapolating the estimated death toll from the Spanish flu of 1918-19 to today’s world population.
* But the winner is Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, who claimed on ABC News’s Primetime, “We could have a billion people dying worldwide.” When I asked him about this, he rather sheepishly admitted he meant to say “one billion ill.” Personally, I’d rather be ill than dead.
Taking all this to heart, if not to head, novelist and essayist Mark Helprin has proposed spending 2.5 percent of the national budget, or about 1 percent of GDP, to stave off the alleged threat. When defense spending has only gone up 0.8 percent of GDP since 9/11 and we don’t even have money to repair our bridges, such calls are downright distressing. In any event Congress has already allocated $5.6 billion to prevent a U.S. epidemic, though President Bush had requested considerably more.
Since I began writing on avian flu back in early 1998 and then during the more recent panic in 2005, I’ve driven the scare-mongers, most of them left-wing like the mega-blog Daily Kos, absolutely nuts by pointing out there’s no evidence for a pending pandemic.
They desperately seem to want to see people keeling over in the streets. One avian flu blogger went so far last December as to predict a 50-50 chance of a pandemic within the next year. I offered the blogger and any other taker not 2 to 1 odds but rather 10 to 1 odds that it wouldn’t happen. Curiously, each entity I specifically challenged chickened out. They couldn’t get permission from their mothers, stuff like that. One of the chickens was a fellow named Crawford Killian who authors the — or shall we say the — H5N1 Blog. He pretends to be the ultimate resource on avian flu developments but refuses to link to my articles. On the other hand, he did see fit to recently link to an online novel in which pandemic flu kills the entire population of Sydney, Australia (4.3 million) save for 300 souls. After all, in tackling such an important issue you have to have priorities.
YET EVIDENCE CONTINUALLY MOUNTS that while there may well be another flu pandemic of some sort, there’s virtually no chance it will be H5N1. Recently reported research from David Finkelstein and his colleagues at St. Jude Hartwell Center in Memphis, Tennessee, is just the latest nail in the chicken coop.
The researchers analyzed almost 10,000 avian H5N1 sequences and almost 14,000 human sequences, including those of seven dead Indonesians who apparently caught the virus from another human. They looked for specific amino acids either more likely to appear in human flu virus proteins or in avian virus proteins. Reporting their results in the journal Virology, they found no sequence that even approached the mutations in the flu viruses that caused the three pandemics of the 20th century, including Spanish Flu.
In all, they identified 32 clear-cut changes in influenza viruses that differentiated a human H5N1 strain from that in birds, yet none of the viral samples from humans had more than two of those changes. “We think they need to get to 13 [mutations] to be truly dangerous,” Finkelstein told Reuters. He characterized his finding as “reassuring.”
Will this affect media perceptions? Yes, that’s a purely rhetorical question. “Doctors warn the H5N1 virus is dangerously close to mutating so that is would pass easily between humans — which could spark a global pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide,” declared Voice of America News on September 12. Due to space limitations it was unable to tell us what doctors.
On the other hand, what’s called mutation through antigenic shift is only one of two ways in which the bird flu might become readily transmissible between humans. The second is through what’s called “recombination” or “reassortment,” in which avian flu and seasonal flu “mix” inside a human or another animal, creating a hybrid with the worst traits of both. But the pandemic purveyors have been disappointed on that front, too.
A study using one of few animal species that contracts human flu, ferrets, appeared last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists. The ferrets were infected with several H5N1 strains in addition to a common human influenza virus that circulates almost every year. The infected animals were then either placed in the same cage with uninfected ferrets to test transmissibility by close contact or in adjacent cages with perforated walls to test spread of the virus from respiratory droplets.
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