Monday, August 8

Pundita plays Devil's Advocate about the latest viral outbreak in China

This post is in answer to a letter from Stan in Canada.

For a moment assume the worst-case scenario: a mutation of airborne-transmitted Ebola mixed with a mutation of H5N1 and further, that the ghastly brew is a bioweapon experiment that jumped the lab. We'll call this virus Bogeyman X or BX for short.

What would BX have to do with the threat of a supervirus? Realize there's already a H5N1 pandemic underway. But that's not the supervirus, the megakiller.

What is a supervirus? It's H5N1 mixed with genetic material from a human flu virus. That will be the superkiller. It has not happened yet because you may trust that when it does, there will be no way to cover up the number of people dying.

So let's back up a few paces and look at the big picture:

Did you notice in Patricia Doyle's letter that now she's talking about what Henry Niman has said about "WSN/33 lab-developed genes" associated with Spanish Flu?

Do you see what's going on? A horse doctor got herself involved with a scientist who is working at the molecular level of existence. So of course when you take it down to that level, there are any number of genes that can display any number of characteristics that match all kinds of really deadly stuff.

This doesn't mean there is no Ebola loose in China, nor does it mean Niman is wrong. Nor does it mean there's not a bioweapon component.

It means that this entire story threatens to collapse from the sheer weight of hypothesizing and incomplete data emanating from (1) a gene scientist whose company has taken out God Knows how many patents relating to flu vaccine development and (2) anonymous people posting at Boxun.

It also means that there are now so many theories, claims, counterclaims and rumors that even the smallest wrong step leads to a quagmire. A good example is the report about the village bulldozings: evidentially one report is that this was done to cover up an outbreak of Ebola. Another report says it was done to cover up an outbreak of H5N1.

And note: once I served notice that a member of the blogosphere was questioning credentials, Doyle got very cautious about the Ebola angle in her letter to me:
Boxun reports that a physician [in China] treating pig disease patients isolated strains of Ebola...There is no verification of the report at this time. I sent the information to ... USAMRIID; as of this date I have not received an authoritative reply verifying the Boxun reports.
With regard to the mass fowl deaths at Qinghai Lake, Henry Niman's website sure isn't talking about Ebola -- at least, not as of the 6th of August. Here's what he's saying:
However, the sequence of the isolates from Qinghai Lake indicate that there will be a major problem using the new vaccine against the H5N1 being spread by migratory birds...The differences between 2004 H5N1 from Vietnam and 2005 H5N1 from Qinghai Lake are 18 amino acids in HA and 13 amino acids in NA.
He's talking about mutations of H5N1, plain and simple.

In 2004 there was a report of thousands of bramblings falling dead from the sky in mid-flight, in China. H5N1 as the cause of death was 'ruled out' by Beijing. They posited some kind of poisoning but I never heard anything more about promised tests and sharing the data.

In any case, the A-H virus is now incredibly lethal to birds/fowl. It got that way not from bioweapon experiments but from Mainland and Hong Kong chicken farmers illegally feeding their flocks antibiotics made for humans; this was back in 1997-1998 during the Hong Kong bird flu outbreak.* They were trying to stop the outbreak. But the virus simply mutated in response to the antibiotics and grew stronger and more clever.

So now we have H5N1.

As I noted earlier, the pandemic relating to that particular strain is already underway. Niman notes in a 7/31 post at Recombinomics:
Most countries have little incentive to report H5N1 cases. India claims to have never had H5N1 in poultry or people, although poultry workers in India have H5N1 antibodies. Thailand claims to have had no H5N1 cases in 2005 although the H5N1 isolated from birds closely matches the H5N1 in northern Vietnam isolated from patients. Indonesia claims their H5N1 infections in 2003 were due to New Castle Disease and the H5N1 in a Jakarta suburban family was a fatal bacterial infection.
That observation is a replay of what was going in 2003-2004 with the H5N1 outbreak.

The kill rate for H5N1 in humans is roughly 50% if I recall. So if people in Asia are demonstrating H5N1 antibodies -- meaning they've been exposed to the virus -- you can bet a lot of people have already died from the disease. The Indian government is covering it up. Ditto Indonesia, and go on down the list.

So it's counterproductive to just go after China's government for lying and not being forthcoming with data. WHO and the CDC went round the block with all those governments back in 2003-2004. The agencies stood on their head to warn that the only chance of the human race avoiding a super pandemic was if all those governments got very transparent very fast about data relating to suspected H5N1 illness.

There are many signs that mass wildlife fowl/bird deaths from H5N1 have been happening at least as early as 2003. My sense is that there was only one thing extraordinary about the mass deaths of the bramblings and the mass deaths of fowl at Qinghai Lake: the deaths occurred at very famous landmarks. The bramblings died at Hu Jintao's birthplace. Qinghai Lake is a world famous tourist spot. That means there was no way the PLA could cover up those two particular instances of mass death in bird/fowl wildlife.

As to how many other instances there have been -- H5N1 is 100% lethal to birds/fowl. And a very fast killer. So I assume there have been cases around the world of mass deaths in migratory birds when they touched down in an infected region. The shelf life of the virus is incredibly long -- it lives for many days in bird feces, even under freezing conditions or in hot sun.

Now let's return to BX Virus. Suppose it exists. What can we do about it? Stand around and accuse the PLA of conducting bioweapons research that got away from them? Then stand around arguing for another year while China denies until so many bodies pile up they have no choice but to confess they have a little problem? Then would come the excuses:

"We just poor developing country trying to make a buck. We won't let it happen again until the next time can we have a World Bank loan for $100 million dollars to modernize our health clinic reporting?"

Meanwhile, plain old H5N1 is galloping around the planet, looking to hook up with a cute human flu virus.

So, what are our options here, Stan? And what is the top priority? "Get Beijing" or "Get all the world's governments to be more cooperative about sharing data on H5N1?"

If #1, you just try proving that Beijing is conducting bioweapon research that got out of the lab. It can be done, I suppose, given time, but now we're in a race against time.

If #2, you get a better response out of China by including them with everyone -- including Canada, I might add, which dragged their feet on admitting to a SARS outbreak. And by keeping the discussion limited to H5N1. Then you have a fighting chance of quickly locating and isolating a disease outbreak that represents the appearance of a supervirus.

I doubt you need illustration but just to review what we're up against with the CCP: I think Beijing came up with the strep suis tale simply because it's a disease that doesn't have to be reported to health agencies in China. And because some of the symptoms of the mystery disease match those associated with strep suis.

However, the Hong Kong authorities (badly burned by the Mainland's foot-dragging on SARS and the 2003 H5N1 outbreak) wised up quickly on the heels of the June outbreak of the mystery disease. On July 1st Hong Kong authorities instructed that henceforth all strep suis cases had to be reported.

If you go back through all the stories, you'll note that from that time forward, Beijing became a little less insistent that the mystery disease was strep suis. And as July unfolded, some Mainland officials allowed as to maybe the disease could be something else, maybe, mixed with strep suis.

Translation: "We know Hong Kong isn't buying."

Behind closed doors, it's okay for the US government to tell Beijing that if they don't cut out the bioweapon experiments the US will make them sorry. But Face on the world stage is everything to the CCP right now. Use that instead of trying to make them fess up. Use it as leverage to get them to report all human and animal deaths from H5N1 in China. Use it to get blood samples of people ill with the disease. If the samples turn up really weird stuff such as Ebola -- yes, well, it's human to err and we know the PLA will do better next time with monitoring experimental labs.

I would take that attitude with Beijing until every man, woman and child on the planet has been vaccinated against H5N1. That won't necessarily stop a supervirus. It will slow it down.

* August 9 Update: A reader mentioned that the practice might not have been illegal in China at the time. I have not had the time to check into the situation but whether or not the practice was illegal, they had no idea how much disaster they were courting. This situation is not limited to China, nor is it limited to abusing antibiotics for humans by feeding them to fowl in the futile attempt to fight a virus. Antibiotics have been over-used, across the board. We're paying a very high price for this with many diseases that are now resistant to antibiotics.

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