Swine Flu: the real dangerous swine wear suits

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With deaths mounting in Mexico authorities warn of a swine flu pandemic. Mike Davis argues that governments, pharmaceutical companies and agribusiness create the conditions for these health crises

The Spring Break hordes returned from Cancun this year with an invisible but sinister souvenir. The Mexican swine flu, a genetic chimera probably conceived in the fecal mire of an industrial pigsty, suddenly threatens to give the whole world a fever. The initial outbreaks across North America reveal an infection already travelling at higher velocity than the last official pandemic strain, the 1968 Hong Kong flu.

Stealing the limelight from our officially appointed assassin, the vigorously mutating H5N1 (also known as bird flu), this porcine virus is a threat of unknown magnitude. Certainly, it seems far less lethal than the SARS respiratory disease in 2003, but as an influenza it may be more durable than SARS and less inclined to return to its secret cave.

Given that domesticated seasonal Type-A influenzas kill as many as 1 million people each year, even a modest increment of virulence, especially if combined with high incidence, could produce carnage equivalent to a major war.

Meanwhile, one of swine flu's first victims has been the faith, long preached in the pews of the World Health Organisation (WHO), that pandemics can be contained by the rapid responses of medical bureaucracies, independent of the quality of local public health.

Since the initial H5N1 deaths in Hong Kong in 1997, the WHO, with the support of most national health services, has promoted a strategy focused on the identification and isolation of a pandemic strain within its local radius of outbreak, followed by a thorough dousing of the population with anti-virals and (if available) vaccine.

An army of sceptics have rightly contested this viral counter-insurgency approach, pointing out that microbes can now fly around the world (quite literally in the case of avian flu) faster than the WHO or local officials can react to the original outbreak. They also point to the primitive, often non-existent surveillance of the interface between human and animal diseases.

Mythology

But the mythology of bold, pre-emptive (and cheap) intervention against avian flu has been invaluable to the cause of rich countries, like the US and Britain. They prefer to invest in their own biological Maginot Lines rather than dramatically increasing aid to epidemic frontlines overseas. They hand money to Big Pharma, which has long battled Third World demands for the generic, public manufacture of critical anti-virals like Roche's Tamiflu.

The swine flu, in any case, may prove that the WHO/Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) version of pandemic preparedness - without massive new investment in surveillance, scientific and regulatory infrastructure, basic public health, or global access to lifeline drugs - belongs to the same class of Ponzified risk management as AIG derivatives and Madoff securities.

It is not so much that the pandemic warning system has failed as that it simply doesn't exist, even in North America and the European Union.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Mexico lacks both capacity and political will to monitor livestock diseases and their public health impacts. But the situation is hardly better north of the border, where surveillance is a failed patchwork of state jurisdictions, and corporate livestock producers treat health regulations with the same contempt with which they deal with workers and animals.

Similarly, a decade of urgent warnings by scientists in the field has failed to ensure the transfer of sophisticated viral testing technology to the countries in the direct path of likely pandemics. Mexico has world-famous disease experts, but it had to send swabs to a laboratory in Winnipeg (which has less than 3 percent of the population of Mexico City) in order to identify the strain's genome. Almost a week was lost as a consequence.

But no one was less alert than the legendary disease controllers in Atlanta. According to the Washington Post, the CDC did not learn about the outbreak until six days after the Mexican government had begun to impose emergency measures. Indeed, "US public health officials are still largely in the dark about what's happening in Mexico two weeks after the outbreak was recognised."

There should be no excuses. This is not a "black swan" flapping its wings. Indeed, the central paradox of this swine flu panic is that, while totally unexpected, it was accurately predicted.

Six years ago Science dedicated a major story (reported by the admirable Bernice Wuethrich) to evidence that "after years of stability, the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track".

Since its identification at the beginning of the 1930s Depression, H1N1 swine flu had only drifted slightly from its original genome. Then in 1998 all hell broke loose. A highly pathogenic strain began to decimate sows on a factory hog farm in North Carolina and new, more virulent versions began to appear almost yearly, including a weird variant of H1N1 that contained the internal genes of H3N2 (the other type-A flu circulating among humans).

Researchers who Wuethrich interviewed worried that one of these hybrids might become a human flu (both the 1957 and 1968 pandemics are believed to have originated from the mixing of bird and human viruses inside pigs). They urged the creation of an official surveillance system for swine flu: an admonition, of course, that went unheeded in a Washington prepared to throw away billions on bioterrorism fantasies while neglecting obvious dangers.

But what caused this acceleration of swine flu evolution? Probably the same thing that has favoured the reproduction of avian flu.

Virologists have long believed that the intensive agricultural system of southern China - an immensely productive ecology of rice, fish, pigs, and domestic and wild birds - is the principal engine of influenza mutation: both seasonal "drift" (its tendency in mammals to evolve into different strains each year) and episodic genomic "shift" (when mutations allow the virus to jump across the species boundary). More rarely there may be a direct leap from birds to pigs and/or humans - as with H5N1 in 1997.

But the corporate industrialisation of livestock production has broken China's natural monopoly on influenza evolution. As many writers have pointed out, animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in children's school books.

In 1965, for instance, there were 53 million American hogs on more than 1 million farms; today, 65 million hogs are concentrated in just 65,000 facilities - half with more than 5,000 animals. This has been a transition, in essence, from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, unprecedented in nature, containing tens, even hundreds of thousands, of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates and pathetic progenies.

Anyone who has ever driven through Tar Heel, North Carolina, or Milford, Utah - where Smithfield Foods subsidiaries each annually produce more than 1 million pigs as well as hundreds of lagoons full of toxic shit - will intuitively understand how profoundly agribusiness has meddled with the laws of nature.

Last year a distinguished commission convened by the Pew Research Center issued a landmark report on "industrial farm animal production" that underscored the acute danger that "the continual cycling of viruses...in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of a novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human to human transmission."

The commission also warned that promiscuous antibiotic use in hog factories (a cheaper alternative to sewer systems or humane environments) was promoting the rise of resistant infections while sewage spills were producing nightmare E coli outbreaks and Pfiesteria blooms (the doomsday organism that has killed more than 1 billion fish in Carolina estuaries and caused sickness in dozens of fishermen).

Any amelioration of this new pathogen ecology, however, would have to confront the monstrous power exercised by livestock conglomerates such as Smithfield Foods (pork and beef) and Tyson (chickens). The Pew commissioners, chaired by former Kansas governor John Carlin, reported systemic obstruction of their investigation by corporations, including blatant threats to withhold funding from cooperative researchers.

Moreover, this is a highly globalised industry with equivalent international political clout. Just as Bangkok-based chicken giant Charoen Pokphand was able to suppress enquiries into its role in the spread of bird flu throughout South East Asia, so it is likely that the forensic epidemiology of the swine flu outbreak will pound its head against the corporate stonewall of the pork industry.

This is not to say that a smoking gun will never be found: there is already gossip in the Mexican press about an influenza epicentre around a huge Smithfield subsidiary in Vera Cruz state. But what matters more (especially given the continued threat of H5N1) is the larger configuration: the WHO's failed pandemic strategy, the further decline of world public health, the stranglehold of Big Pharma over lifeline medicines, and the planetary catastrophe of industrialised and ecologically unhinged livestock production.


Mike Davis is the author of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu