Thursday, October 6, 2005

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"I can't think of anything bigger that's happened in virology for many years."

That's the assessment of one expert in Gina Kolata's New York Times front-pager on new research about the 1918 influenza virus:

The 1918 influenza virus, the cause of one of history's most deadly epidemics, has been reconstructed and found to be a bird flu that jumped directly to humans, two teams of federal and university scientists announced yesterday....

"This is huge, huge, huge," said John Oxford, a professor of virology at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital who was not part of the research team. "It's a huge breakthrough to be able to put a searchlight on a virus that killed 50 million people. I can't think of anything bigger that's happened in virology for many years."

The scientists painstakingly traced the genetic sequence, synthesized the virus using tools of molecular biology, and infected mice and human lung cells with it in a secure laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The research is being published in the journals Nature and Science.

The findings, the scientists say, reveal a small number of genetic changes that may explain why this virus was so lethal. It is significantly different from flu viruses that caused the more recent pandemics of 1957 and 1968. Those viruses were not bird flu viruses but instead were human flu viruses that picked up a few genetic elements of bird flu.

The research also confirms the legitimacy of worries about the bird flu viruses, called H5N1, that are emerging in Asia. Since 1997, bird flocks in 11 countries have been decimated by flu outbreaks. So far nearly all the people infected - more than 100, including more than 60 who died - contracted the sickness directly from birds. However, there has been little transmission between people.

A companion piece by Gardiner Harris suggests that Democrats have officially freaked out about the avian flu problem:

Health officials have warned for years that a virulent bird flu could kill millions of people, but few in Washington have seemed alarmed. After a closed-door briefing last week, however, fear of an outbreak swept official Washington, which was still reeling from the poor response to Hurricane Katrina.

The day after the briefing, led by Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and other senior government health officials, the Senate squeezed $3.9 billion for flu preparations into a Pentagon appropriations bill.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats plan to introduce another bill calling for the creation of a flu pandemic coordinator within the White House and a federal buy-back program for unused flu vaccines, among other measures, according to a draft of the bill. Its authors include the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada; Senator Barack Obama of Illinois; and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Thirty-two Democratic senators sent a letter to President Bush on Tuesday expressing "grave concern that the nation is dangerously unprepared for the serious threat of avian influenza."....

Mr. Leavitt warned in the briefing last week that an outbreak could cause 100,000 to 2 million deaths and as many as 10 million hospitalizations in the United States, one person who was present said. Those numbers have been presented publicly many times before. But hearing them in closed session gave them urgency, some who were at the meeting said.

The briefing "scared the hell out of me," Senator Reid said recently.

So the Times, it appears, passes the Hotline Blog's test of media relevance (link via Glenn Reynolds).

Even though I've been Bush-bashing as of late, it's worth pointing out that Democrats are late to this party. Kolata says in her story that, "Bush administration officials have been talking about pandemic flu preparedness for years, and they say they will soon release a pandemic flu plan, in the works for more than a year." Harris says that, "The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, said he had been delivering speeches about improving the nation's preparedness for a flu pandemic since December."

Of course, let's see how the plans pan out.

posted by Dan on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM



Although you do point out the contradiction between this post and preceding one, I'm at a loss to understand just why you think the administration will be any more competent in its approach to this problem than it has been to so many others. Particularly since this is a non-traditional security threat, rather than one at which you can simply throw the Pentagon and claim "mission accomplished." This is the administration that responded to an attack by non-state actors by invading and occupying two states, after all. I note that Bush is already talking about using the military to address this threat, which may or may not be a good approach, but seems simply reflexive, and hence not at all reassuring.

How about more intensive international cooperation on this isssue? Since this administration disdains multilateralism, I doubt that we'll make much progress on that front, although bird flu has spread far beyond Southeast Asia, into Kazakhstan and even Russia, for example. As the articles note, we haven't even established a national system for monitoring disease symptoms yet, much less an international one.

But these generalities aside, have you forgotten the flu vaccine debacle of last year, and the short-sightedness it showed? Do you really think that much has changed? And finally, according to this item,, also posted on TPM, an underqualified lawyer with political connections (sound familiar?), is the HHS Assistant Secretary in charge of coordinating the response to pandemic flu. If this story is accurate, then just like Harriet Miers, you've gotta wonder if this gentleman would make anybody's top 100 list of best qualified people for the post. Maybe Democrats are late to this party, but you're going to have to bring more than the word of one NYT reporter to the show if you want to convince me that this administration isn't even later. I would close by noting that despite administration rhetoric about plans and meetings, one of the independent experts quoted in the article says we are "phenomenally underprepared" for a pandemic. It seems to me there are more than enough reasons not to trust Bush on this one, either.....

posted by: SDP on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

Yeah, Iíll trust W (on the lighter side, trusting W is this week's theme).

And, No, I cannot trust most Dems. All they do is yell and run around in circles.

They do not and cannot lead.

However, if either party tries to score political points on this, they should be spanked early and hard.

posted by: Greg on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

Scary indeed.

posted by: Gavin on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

If only there has been some advances in medicine and hygiene since 1918. Oh well, hindsight. We should probably start killing as many birds as possible.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

Dan: "it's worth pointing out that Democrats are late to this party."

I think that it's also worth pointing out that the GOP controls all three branches of the government.

posted by: Barry on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

Your post on this story is further proof of your poor ability to articulate ideas in a thoughtful manner.

posted by: RZ on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

If its not obvious to other readers, my comment above was directed to Mark Buehner.

posted by: RZ on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

The possibility of flu pandemics is one of those things that makes me truly wish we had more than a handful of bipartisan politicians.

posted by: drew on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

Bush administration officials have been talking about pandemic flu preparedness for years, and they say they will soon release a pandemic flu plan, in the works for more than a year.

This is not aimed at the Bush administration, but just a general comment: disaster preparedness plans should be released in draft form as soon as they are written down on paper, and subsequent drafts should be released on a rolling basis. Two reasons:

1) If you release drafts, and the disaster strikes tomorrow, everyone will know what the plan is. It may not be the best possible plan, but people will know what it is and understand what their responsibilities will be.

2) If you release drafts, people outside your working group will be able to point out errors and omissions before the plan is finalized (and, perhaps, your working group is disbanded).

posted by: alkali on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

I agree with Buehner. How many people died of SARS once it ran into a hospital that wasn't covered in flies?

posted by: Don Mynack on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

"Bush administration officials have been talking about pandemic flu preparedness for years, and they say they will soon release a pandemic flu plan, in the works for more than a year."

Gee, a good place to start would be to make sure you have enough vaccine from relaible sources . . .

posted by: Randy Paul on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

"Bush administration officials have been talking about pandemic flu preparedness for years"

Considering how they dropped the ball on flu vaccine last year, it appears all they've been doing is talking.

posted by: Jon H on 10.06.05 at 01:25 AM [permalink]

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