About that Impending Bird Influenza Pandemic

Saw this item at Boing! Boing!,

World Health Organization’s bird flu warning: 100 million deaths

Matt Vine sez: Since yesterday, the rest of the world has been buzzing with news of the World Health Organization’s warnings of a impending flu pandemic that could kill up to 100 million. These warnings are suspiciously missing from American news sites – we get things like “Godzilla honored with ‘Walk of Fame’ star” from CNN’s front page.” Link

posted by Mark Frauenfelder at 08:47:00 AM

Of coures if you actually bother to read any of the articles that Boing! Boing! links to you, you learn that the impending epidemic is not so impending.

In fact, there is no evidence that the bird flue can be spread from human to human, which would be necessary before it could become a pandemic. There are apparently two cases of bird flu where researchers haven’t yet figured out how the individuals contracted the disease, but otherwise all cases of the bird flu have been transmitted directly from birds to human beings. It is telling that unlike the SARS outbreak, so far there appear to be no cases of infections among health care workers who have treated victims.

So why is the WHO going around saying that there’s this impending pandemic? Well, the short version is that it isn’t. The long version is that its Pacific regional director made the claims about the bird flu pandemic, and the rest of WHO appears to be scratching its head about where he came up with these claims.

For example, here’s the New York Times’ coverage,

Dr. Shigeru Omi, the W.H.O.’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said that if a pandemic should strike – an outcome he termed “very, very likely” – governments should be prepared to close schools, office buildings and factories to slow the rate of new infections. They also should work out emergency staffing to prevent a breakdown in basic public services like electricity and transportation, he said.

. . .

W.H.O. officials in Geneva said later that they had not received an advance copy of Dr. Omi’s remarks and did not know the basis for his estimates and why he believed a pandemic was so likely.

. . .

In sounding the alarm about avian influenza, “W.H.O. is trying to raise concern because we’re concerned, but W.H.O. is not trying to scare the planet,” Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the agency, said in a telephone interview.

“No one knows how many are likely to die in the next human influenza pandemic,” or even when it will occur, said Dr. Klaus Stöhr, the agency’s top influenza expert. “The numbers are all over the place.”

The same thing happened with SARS, you might remember, where there were a few individuals who claimed SARS was going to turn into a pandemic.

Obviously such a pandemic is always possible should a virus like the bird flu mutate into a highly communicable form, but a pandemic is far from impending.


W.H.O. Official Says Deadly Pandemic Is Likely if the Asian Bird Flu Spreads Among People. Keith Bradsher and Lawrence K. Altman, The New York Times, November 30, 2004.

China Erects Monument for Monkeys Killed in SARS Research

Agence France-Presse reported in October that China had erected a monument in honor of 38 rhesus monkeys who died as part of researcher into the SARS virus.

According to AFP the 16 ton granite monument was erected outside an animal lab at Wuhan University in the Hubei province, and carries an inscription written by SARS researcher Sun Lihua,

For lab animals that have died for the health of humans. In special memory of the 38 rhesus monkeys that devoted their lives to SARS research.


China erects monument for SARS monkeys. Agence France-Presse, October 4, 2004.

SARS Con Man Get Scammed

According to this Boston Herald story, 38-year-old Weldong Xu scammed friends and co-workers out of more than $600,000. He claimed he was raising the money to help launch a SARS research institute in China, but he allegedly pocketed the money.

Well, not quite. According to police, Xu decided to parlay his scam into big winnings by sending it all to a Nigerian e-mail scammer who promised him $50 million profit.


Scientist nabbed for SARS scam: Cops: Suspect bilked pals. Jennifer Rosinski, Boston Herald, March 31, 2004.

China Slaughters Thousands of Civet Cats in Wake of New SARS Case

Despite warnings from the World Health Organization that it would likely be counter-productive, Chinese officials move forward in early January with the slaughter of thousands of civets after a new case of SARS was discovered.

After discovering the first confirmed case of SARS in China in six months, authorities in the southern Guandong province ordered the mass slaughter of all civet cats. In all, somewhere between 4-10 thousand civits were killed.

The animals were slaughtered by drowning, electrocution, incineration and, in some reported cases, clubbing to death. Officials in the Guandong province announced there would be a $12,000 fine for anyone who was found trying to hide the animals. The civet cat is sold as a food delicacy in some parts of China.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said the slaughter was premature and likely to be counter-productive. According to the WHO, the connection between civets and human cases of SARS has still not been definitively proven, although WHO concedes that civets do contract a disease that appears to be very similar to SARS.

Moreover, the WHO warned that if civets are carriers of SARS, methods of killing them like clubbing could end up potentially exposing more people to the disease than simply letting the animals live.

Ignoring the criticism, Guandong authorities supervised the January slaughter which also apparently spread to other animals, including badgers and rats.


China steps up SARS civet cull. The BBC, January 9, 2004.

WHO criticises China cull plans. The BBC, January 5, 2004.

China follows Mao with mass cull Tim Luard, The BBC, January 6, 2004.

China Lifts Ban on 54 Species Despite SARS Concerns

Despite continuing concerns over the origins and transmission of SARS, China in August announced the lifting of a ban on the trade and sale of 54 species of wildlife. This includes the civet cat which is known to be a carrier of the disease.

More than 800 people worldwide have died from SARS since it first emerged in China in late 2002.

So far researchers have not yet been able to say whether SARS jumped from non-human animals to humans, but transmission from civets or other animals to human beings somewhere in southern China is a leading hypothesis for the disease’s emergence at the moment.

The World Health Organization, which is trying to pinpoint the source of the disease, opposed China’s move. Dr. Hank Bekedam, WHO representative to CHINA, said, “We think it’s a little early to lift the restrictions.”


News shorts. MeatNews.Com, August 19, 2003.

SARS: China to lift wildlife ban. Associated Press, August 14, 2003.

PETA Tries to Ride SARS Fears

At the height of concern of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent four activists to Sahar International Airport in India to urge people to stop eating meat in order to prevent future disease outbreaks (see the photo to the right that ran in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu).

PETA’s Bijal Vachharajani told Mumbai Newsline,

In response to news reports that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic now spreading across the globe probably originated on a pig farm, PETA is offering ?simple but effective? advice about how to prevent this and other life-threatening diseases like heart attacks and cancer: Leave the animals alone and stop eating meat.

. . .

No more meat means no more factory farms and no more outbreaks of diseases spread by intensively-raised animals.


No pigs for PETA, but at the airport, nobody cares. Mumbai Newsline, April 23, 2003.