The Guardian 30 November, 2005
Perspectives on the Avian Flu Virus World confronting mortal danger:
Avian flu registered in 24 countries and regions
Evidence of a possible severe health issue that could result in millions of deaths and provoke incalculable economic losses was presented at an international conference in Geneva regarding avian flu and the human flu pandemic.
Three Asian nations have detected new outbreaks of the disease in poultry just one day after health experts delineated a billion dollar world-wide plan to stop the propagation of the virus. So far the epizootic has been registered in 24 countries and regions. It is feared that its geographical distribution will expand.
China, Vietnam and Thailand said that they have discovered fresh outbreaks as the region approaches the northern winter season, which is when the H5N1 strain of the avian flu appears to intensify.
The severity of the situation was emphasised from the first day of the event by Lee Jong-Wook, Secretary General of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
"It is only a matter of time before the H5N1 virus is transformed into a serious human pathogen", he warned.
"We don’t know when this is going to happen, but we know that it will", he assured the 600 experts from international organisations, public and private entities and representatives of more than 100 countries attending the conference.
The danger of the threatening virus — discovered in Italy more than 100 years ago — resides in its capacity to mutate into various pathogenic forms.
The "A" variety of the flu, one of the human transmittable varieties, appears to have been the cause of the brutal flu epidemics in the 20th century, such as the Spanish flu of 1918 that resulted in far more deaths than World War 1, which had ended that same year.
The avian flu, a strain derived from the A variety, defined by the nomenclature H5N1, has already forced the slaughter of millions of birds throughout the world and has infected 120 individuals, of whom more than half have died.
Migratory birds, and in particular wild ducks, are important vectors of one form of the virus.
During the WHO meeting in Geneva, the Asian countries complained that they cannot access the antivirus because the rich nations are hoarding its production. More developed nations must resolve this situation because the danger of the pandemic is knocking at their door while the transnationals based in their countries are seeking to speculate with the vaccines.
In addition, the World Bank (WB) warned of the possibility of multimillion dollar economic losses in the case of a global epidemic, higher than those caused by the atypical pneumonia of 2003.
In that same year, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused some 800 deaths and cost an equivalent of two percent of Asia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Nevertheless, Milan Brahmbhatt, WB chief economist for East Asia and the Pacific, stated that the cost of an avian flu pandemic could reach $2 billion in one trimester and around $8 billion in 12 months.
So far, the slaughter of birds due to the presence of this disease has cost around 0.6 percent of the GDP of nations such as Thailand and Vietnam and two percent in the Philippines.
At the beginning of the month, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned that if this pandemic gains ground among humans, the economies of that continent will face damages of close to $2.8 billion in a 12-month period.
The institution declared that the avian flu constitutes "a potential major challenge for the development of the region", considered the most serious since the 1997 financial crisis derived from currency speculation.
If this situation takes on the characteristics of an epidemic, the disease will bring about a paralysis in Asia’s economic expansion and a severe contraction of trade, especially in the area of services.
In his turn, Wook affirmed that an avian flu epidemic could have an impact on humans. Since 2003, more than 60 individuals have died from this virus.
Sub-types of the highly pathogenic flu, such as the H5N1 strain, could cause an epidemic leaving millions dead, the UN agency warned.
During a meeting of public and private bodies interested in drawing up strategies to eliminate the virus in birds, Wook insisted on the need for international cooperation.
He stated that it is unknown when an outbreak among people might occur, "but we know it will happen".
Samuel Jutzi, head of the Animal Production and Health Department of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said that combating this disease demands a major commitment on the part of the international community.
"Halting this dangerous and devastating disease will require an enormous political commitment, large investments, coordinated international cooperation and strong action on the part of the affected countries."
The European Union (EU) has announced that it will provide €30 million in 2006 to help combat the outbreak in Asia, the region most affected. Such small sums of aid to this continent will only contribute to "the preparation and isolation of a pandemic threat".
However, nothing can impede the H5N1 viral strain from mutating into a form transmittable among humans and that is where the danger lies.
A World Bank study presented as a sideline to the Geneva conference examining the statistics and projections of the major pandemics of the 20th century indicates that, in the United States alone, a pandemic could cause from 100,000-200,000 deaths and economic losses of up to $200 billion.
This projection also reveals that world-wide economic losses due to a human flu pandemic of avian origin could reach $800 billion; that is to say the equivalent of two percent or three percent of the gross world product.
Is USA monopolising the "Black Death"
A scandal links the US to the appearance of "Bird Flu"
Recently the New York Times published a news item about the "resurrection’’ of the virus of the deadly Spanish Flu by American scientists. In 1918 this type of influenza spread in Europe and America, killing millions of people.
The results of current research were published in the journal Nature and Science and gave a detailed description of this deadly illness, the methods of its synthesis and infections of test mice, as well as parts of the human lung. All this work was done at the Centre for the Control of Infectious Diseases and their Prevention, in the US City of Atlanta, Georgia.
It has become obvious that the Spanish Flu is the same as the Bird Flu, but is capable of transmitting itself from person to person without intermediaries.
The cause of its enormous killing potential is that the virus of Spanish Flu has some minor structural changes if compared to other known influenza viruses.
The currently isolated viruses of Bird Flu A (N5No.1) resemble those of the Spanish Flu, but reproduce only part of its changed structure. According to statements by the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Dr Fossy, and the director of the above-mentioned Centre for the Control of Infectious Diseases and their Prevention, Dr Herberding, the results of this research could have immediate significance for the discovery of changes in the mutant virus N5No.1, which make the wide spread of the infection among humans more likely.
According to Dr Taubenberg, head of the Section of Molecular Pathology of the Military Institute of Pathology, at this point of time the Bird Flu virus is not jumping from human to human.
The study of this issue occupies American researchers of the Spanish Flu. The purpose is to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic similar to that of 1918.
This research is held to be of "extraordinary significance". A colleague of the American team of virologists, the British Professor Oxford, says that it would be an enormous breakthrough should we be able to throw some light on a virus which has killed 50 million people…
If one is to believe the New York Times, this fascinating history began when Taubenberg decided, in 1995, to study the Spanish Flu.
Allegedly, he was prompted by simple scientific curiosity, considering that in 1919 it had been impossible to isolate this virus and understand its nature.
Hence Taubenberg began searching its traces in American pathology institutes, but nothing had been preserved after the passing of 80 years.
However, he got the help of a retired pathological anatomy specialist named Haltin, who travelled, on his own account, from San Francisco to Alaska, where he opened up mass graves of individuals who had died of Spanish Flu.
He took samples of their lung tissue, which was preserved in permafrost, and sent it to Taubenberg. After that, Taubenberg and colleagues worked for ten years on the study of the virus, trying to decipher its mysterious essence, until they obtained results.
In August of that year another scientist from the same Centre for the Control of Infectious Diseases and their Prevention, named Tampi, reconstructed the Spanish Flu virus on the basis of information obtained from Taubenberg.
Tampi began investigating how the virus would behave in experiments with mice, and also in the case of an infection with human lungs.
He also investigated what would happen if the Spanish Flu genes were linked to those of ordinary influenza.
The report stressed that all these experiments are, of course, conducted under conditions of extraordinary care, on strictly protected specimens, so as to prevent the infection of researchers and a flare-up of epidemics.
All this sounds fascinating, but also rather thought-provoking.
The point is, that it is difficult to believe the story about the huge efforts dedicated to the Spanish Flu virus, were just because of Taubenberg’s curiosity and the dedicated efforts by a pathological anatomy specialist.
In America it was hoped that nobody would pay attention to the trips by numerous groups of microbiologists from military establishments of the United States, Britain, Canada, Norway and other NATO member countries, spending a number of years digging up the burial places of American Indians in Canada and Norwegians on the island of Spitzbergen, "hunting" after the corpses of people who died from Spanish Flu.
Precisely, military establishments wanted to resurrect the Spanish Flu virus. It looks as if they achieved their goal.
True, in the latest reports on this subject matter there are some inconsistencies. Whilst the New York Times tells us touching stories about the "break-through" of Taubenberg’s research, the journal Nature had reported earlier that a team of American scientists from the Wisconsin University, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoke, had added to the ordinary influenza virus two genes of Spanish Flu virus, and achieved the death of test animals within a few days’ time with symptoms closely resembling the legendary Spanish Flu virus.
The influenza infection rapidly changed to pneumonia, followed by bleeding and death. Of course, the journal said, these results were obtained with mice, the effect of the modified virus on humans had not been established.
All this raises questions about the emergence of an atypical strain of pneumonia in China, South-East Asia, and then also in Russia, at a time when the experiments with Spanish Flu are conducted in the United States.
Before this, nothing similar was known in the world.
However, it is now clear that the virus of the "Black Death" has been resurrected, and that somebody holds the monopoly of control over its secret. It is a monopoly equally significant for business as for military purposes.
Imagine if an unruly and very "undemocratic" country is suddenly hit by a Spanish Flu epidemic, resulting in stacks of corpses, like it was in 1918. But the life-preserving vaccine is only available from the United States.
Do you see? It is known that not so long ago the Bush administration strictly refused to participate in the determination of the mechanisms needed for the effective control over the Convention banning biological and toxic weaponry.
Why is it that the United States does not want to cooperate?
From Sovetskaya Rossia, 8 Oct, 2005
Summarised and translated by Vera Butler
Letters to the Editor: Looming bio-disaster
As fears of a global Bird Flu pandemic grow, I hope somebody in the United States dusts off and declassifies the file on the Central Pacific Birds Project. It might give scientists a leg up on this looming bio-disaster.
This innocuous sounding project was launched in the mid-1960s from the highly respectable Smithsonian Institution. Its mission was to map the flyways of birds migrating to and from nesting places in the Soviet Union.
To observers like myself — then working as a tech writer on loan to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC — the team assembled for the Birds project was a breath of fresh air in the musty galleries of the museum. All were young men and women, university graduate students, most exempted from military service in the war that was then heating up across the Pacific in South Vietnam.
The young biologists exuded enthusiasm, energy, commitment. Some were even growing their hair long and playing Bob Dylan on their tape recorders. How envious we old fogies were to learn that the Birds team would soon be exploring the idyllic Pacific islands and flyways on research grants that would feather their own nests.
But few of these scientists would know the sinister purpose the bird project would serve.
It was by accident that I came across a file that revealed that the project was funded by Fort Detrick, the US Army’s bio-warfare laboratories in Thurmont, Maryland. I had been using the Bird project’s safe to store papers I was then working on for an interagency committee. Rather than carry them back and forth to my office, it was convenient — and secure — to lock them up at the Smithsonian.
Of course the penny dropped one day when I pulled out the wrong file and glanced at the cover sheet. It took no stretch of imagination to realise there was a lot more to the Central Pacific Bird Project than bird watching.
I had no intention of sharing my suspicion with project researchers, many then leaving for the Pacific. I certainly didn’t have a need to know; neither would my colleagues. It was not until I left government service that I saw a letter to the editor in a widely-read science magazine alluding to the project, but not to its defence implications.
These emerged years later with revelations by veterans claiming compensation for exposure to chemical and biological agents during experiments in the Pacific. At the freerepublic.com website, J B Stone says "Smithsonian contractors aboard the USNS SHEARWATER, accompanied by YAG-39 and YAG-40 ‘collected’ thousands of migratory bird carcasses …Over 2 million birds were banded and dusted down to see how these ‘avian vectors’ would transport deadly substances… Crewmen shot the boobies and gulls and gutted them on the helo deck for verification … All communication between the various parties was discouraged and test results closely guarded under highest security measures."
When the United States and the Soviet Union renounced bacteriological warfare and destroyed their stockpiles, the Central Pacific Birds Project was probably put back into filing cabinets to wait another day.
But is there now unreported scientific information in the archives of this project that would today advance our understanding of birds as vectors of the dreaded Bird Flu virus?