TCS Daily

One Flu from the Cuckoo's Nest

By Peter Nolan - October 27, 2005 12:00 AM

This August, the White House told the press that the President's reading list for his stay at his Texas ranch included the book, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry. The book tells the story of the flu pandemic following World War I that killed several times the number who died in the war itself, perhaps 100 million people. The consensus within the scientific community is that new strains of flu, first spotted in wild birds and farm poultry in Asia, and hence known as bird flu, threaten to evolve into a global plague that could kill millions.

Combine the wide reach of AIDS, the near-instant spread of SARS in 2002 and the panic that followed the 2001 anthrax attacks in America and multiply it by several orders of magnitude and you might get some idea of the potential consequences. Unlike Asia's tsunami or earthquake, this tragedy will not be confined to our television screens; we've every prospect of experiencing the devastation for ourselves here in Europe, where the disease has already begun appearing among wild birds and farm poultry in Russia, Romania and Greece.

Moving beyond what has happened to what might happen in the future, American historian Mike Davis has just published the first book for the general public on bird flu, Monster at our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. Davis is best known for his book on Los Angeles, City of Quartz, whose apocalyptic prophecies and tone are reminiscent of "Blade Runner", but which was rejected as a doctoral thesis by the history department at UCLA.

Davis himself is reasonably well-known in Ireland for his work as an activist in the Socialist Workers Party, a small but noisy Trotskyite splinter group. Hardly a body with a reputation for detailed and objective public policy research, its hundred members habitually organize behind front organizations such as the Irish Anti-War Movement, who recently participated in and reported favorably on the group's website about a Cairo conference attended by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and representatives of various strands of the Iraqi "resistance".

Rather like the flu virus itself, the political views of Davis piggyback on the mass information taken from the press and scientific literature, rendering the whole dangerous. He's no scientist and his introduction to the basic mechanics of flu is clumsy and confused, with many undefined and unexplained technical terms thrown out without explanation or context.

However, neither is his coverage of the literature what one might expect from a professional historian. Although the Lancet, Nature and other key journals are cited, he also sees fit to share with us agit-prop from a group calling itself calling itself the International Committee of the Fourth International, which appears to be another small Trotskyite splinter.

The pharmaceutical industry in particular earns his sweeping condemnation, apart from a bizarre paean to the Cuban state's efforts in this area, which have not included any contribution to flu research, and which mostly involve pirating patented drugs made elsewhere. His own policy prescriptions are in the same vein - the government takeover of research and production of vaccines and antiviral drugs - but seem unconnected with the solutions proposed in the recent policy debates or in the medical literature.

In spite of rapid progress in research on many fronts, especially by smaller start-up firms such as Gilead, the inventor of the antiviral drug Tamiflu that is being stockpiled by governments as the first line of defense against a pandemic, the pressure from governments who want to lower drug prices by buying cheaper pirated copies of patented pharmaceuticals remains unrelenting. The development community is now working on putting in place up-front commitments from aid agencies and private philanthropists such as the Gates Foundation to purchase drugs from their patent-holders, spurring research in treating new diseases or those confined to the world's poor.

Similarly, Davis shows a tendency to quote selectively, mining one newspaper editorial for a condemnation of US policies on drug patents which is an aside to the main point of condemning the secrecy and lack of international cooperation by China and Vietnam. Going on a speculative tangent on the science of the flu, he proposes that increased urbanization may make the disease deadlier, contradicting the historical evidence that urban dwellers had more resistance to the 1918 pandemic flu reported by Barry's The Great Influenza.

Many of the gaps in the narrative and inaccuracies which are legion in the book might simply be due to the lag between its writing and publication; none of the sources is dated later than early in 2005, leaving out important developments since then, such as Roche's donation of a three-million-dose supply of Tamiflu to the WHO for distribution in poor countries, America's direct financial and technical aid to Vietnam, the pipeline of new vaccines and antivirals and the positive effects of the prioritization of spending on disease monitoring and disaster preparedness by the Bush administration after the 2001 bioterror attacks.

The rapidly evolving situation should provide an opportunity for blogs by credible specialists to come into their own, with their mix of expert interpretation of a news stream together with direct links to the source material, such as those of CIDRAP (the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy), the Avian Flu blog maintained by academics at George Mason University, or the collaborative reference site Flu Wiki.

Peter Nolan is a London-based investment analyst and spokesman for the Freedom Institute Ireland.


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