More Bad News for Bird Flu Chicken Littles

Posted: Sep 20, 2007 12:23 PM
More Bad News for Bird Flu Chicken Littles

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 to counter the reality, such as massive death estimates.

Typical is the oft-quoted one of University of Minnesota School of Public Health professor Michael Osterholm, who estimated 180-360 million deaths worldwide simply by extrapolating the estimated death toll from the Spanish flu of 1918-19 to today's world population.

Taking this to heart, neo-con novelist and essayist Mark Helprin has proposed spending 2.5 percent of the national budget, or about 1 percent of GDP, to counter the alleged threat. This when defense spending has gone up only 0.8 percent of GDP since 9/11 to fight the war on terror and two ground wars.

In any event Congress has already allocated $5.6 billion for avian flu, part of which is going to obnoxious “pandemic flu” ads from the CDC that pop up on you while using any software on your computer. That sure makes me feel safer.

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.

The latest nail in the chicken coop comes from the lab of David Finkelstein and his colleagues at St. Jude Hartwell Center in Memphis, Tenn.

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. In the journal Virology, they declared 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? Pshaw! “Doctors warn the H5N1 virus is dangerously close to mutating so that it would pass easily between humans – which could spark a global pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide,” declared Voice of America News shortly thereafter. Space limitations prevented it from saying which doctors.

Last year, studies on ferrets, one of the few animals that can contract seasonal flu and H5N1, put the kibosh on the other way H5N1 could become pandemic – through what’s called recombination” or “reassortment.” This refers to the two types of flu “mixing” inside a human or another animal, creating a hybrid with possibly the worst traits of both.

When one set of ferrets was infected with both strains and then exposed to a second set,

none of the secondary ferrets contracted either a reassorted virus or even just H5N1. The scientists even used gene splicing to create a hybrid virus. Not only did the fabricated hybrids pass poorly between the animals, ferrets injected with the reassorted virus were less ill than those who received pure H5N1. Reassortment appears to have weakened the germ.

All of this also helps explain one of the least-known facts about H5N1. The strain’s discovery in poultry dates back not to 1997, as we’re constantly told, but rather to 1959 when it was identified in Scottish chickens.

In other words, we’ve been exposed to this thing for half a century and yet it’s refused to go pandemic.

Small increases in the counted numbers of bird-to-human cases over the last four years probably represent little more than better reporting. Yet virologist Robert Webster, perhaps the most respected of the alarmists, last November in the New England Journal of Medicine specifically cited the annual increases in bird-to-human H5N1 cases since 2002 as cause for alarm.

So what does it mean that, according to the WHO, throughout this year such cases have significantly lagged behind those of last year? You already know: “It’s even worse than we thought!”