Flu: One of nature’s WMD
Flu season is approaching, and it’s worth washing your hands a lot. No one really worries about the flu, but we probably should. It’s originally a bird disease that’s adapted to us and changes every year. “New Killer Animal Virus!” – effectively what it is – would grab our attention a little better. Luckily, it doesn’t change that much each year. Our immune system recognizes the virus’s two surface proteins, and even though these evolve by mutating from year to year (why 10 20 percent of the world catches it), it tends to be a mild disease. Our immune systems are primed to recognize the main human flus, more or less.When it does make a big change, it becomes a flu pandemic with the potential to kill millions of people. The Spanish flu of 1918 is believed to have killed close to 100 million. We’ve had smaller pandemics in 1957 and 1968. The biology of the flu virus means pandemics are inevitable, and we’re overdue.The flu virus makes the leap when it changes its surface proteins so much our immune systems can’t recognize them. Typically this is when a new virus jumps from birds to people. This is tough to do. First someone has to catch it, which requires massive exposure by a human to the sick birds.We’re up to it, though. A recent case of bird flu occurred after a man sucked the snot out of a rooster’s beak before a cockfight so it could breathe and perform better. Close proximity in factory farms, live animal markets, and houses are more the norm. This fall, someone managed to contract it from a sick family member.Once the flu is in a person, it has to adapt to humans and become contagious. This is rarer, requiring just the right mutation, or (more likely) it can swap genes with a normal case of human flu, becoming a hybrid. Some unlucky person (or pig) who happens to simultaneously catch bird and human flu is the potential breeding ground for a natural weapon of mass destruction more worrying than Iraq ever was.Asia, with its close proximity of people, birds, pigs and crowded factory farms, is ringing alarm bells. There are three types of bird flu in a position to make the leap one of which (H5N1) has a very nasty attitude. All those mass killings of chickens in Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, Netherlands, etc., are attempts to stop these viruses. Mexico is vaccinating chickens against H5N1 to avoid killings, but if not closely monitored this can allow chickens to carry the disease without dying. Good for the flu, but perhaps not for us.We have a habit of playing around with genes and viruses. The rationale being if we create a super flu in a safe sterile lab we can do research on it and know how to fight it. U.S. researchers are also manipulating smallpox, a disease eradicated from the world, which seems like poking a stick at a sleeping tiger. We’d better know the cage is secure. Any disease research for cures or weapons can be justified by “we need to see these things first so we are prepared.” People who believe in keeping Pandora’s box closed are not reassured by these assumptions of good intentions. If Chinese scientists did the same, would we be happy? Scientific research can be very useful, although with things as nasty as viruses, the justification should be crystal clear.With flu, science has made great strides recently. Vaccines can now be designer-made by reverse genetics. The standard chicken egg method didn’t work with a virus that killed chicken cells. Combined with new cell culture production, we’re close to achieving a significant advance in vaccine production. If we fund it.Vaccines aren’t that profitable. A normal flu vaccine is an educated guess on what three strains of flu will be prevalent this winter. A potential threat is only a potential product; the guess has to be right. Even if it is, flu mutates fast enough that last season’s vaccine is out of date. Stockpiles don’t make money unless they’re used. Anti-viral drugs can be stockpiled, but this needs to be planned in advance, too. Production takes months. The private sector can’t be expected to pay the insurance premium for the potential flu pandemic each year. It’s something governments have to guarantee or subsidize.Perhaps the bright spot in this year’s normal flu vaccine shortage is the light it shines on vaccine production problems in the U.S. Relying on overseas factories for a vaccine during a pandemic is optimistic at best.The low spot: A few members of Congress using their elevated sense of self importance to justify jumping the line of elderly and children to get their flu shots. “We shake a lot of hands, you know.” Not surprisingly, some of these are politicians dismissive of international organizations and treaties, favoring a “me first” attitude.They should look at the World Health Organization. The WHO did a brilliant job monitoring and controlling the spread of SARs. They literally put a genie back in its bottle. The same system looks for new influenza viruses and would provide much needed time for control and vaccine production. The 1918 flu took eight months after adapting to humans to mutate into a contagious one. The WHO could do with some money to expand this system into the poorer countries in the world.Flu is one of the many issues in the world that crosses borders with impunity and demands a cooperative approach.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado
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