Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Thoughtful or provoking?

An editorial in Thailand's Bangkok Post has characterized as "thoughtful" in the flu blogging world. Perhaps. But there is much in it that requires additional editorial comment.

First, there are several assumptions that should be questioned, among them that there is evidence the virus has not mutated into a form that is easily transmitted. Given the poor surveillance and lack of seroprevalence studies, itself a scandal, we simply don't know this to be true. Niman at Recombinomics has repeatedly called attention to fallacies in the assumption that lack of evidence of reassortment is sufficient to conclude the necessary step to pandemic ability hasn't occurred. Clearly the biology tells us differently.

Second, the editorial praises Bush's "initiative" announced at the UN for "a new international partnership" to fight bird flu. It is doubtful Bush's do-nothing administration had much to do with it (except to take credit), and even worse, the stated goal of the 16 nation partnership is to ensure adequate sharing of information. The Bangkok Post editorial takes China and Vietnam to task for their failure to share information, but says nothing about the Bush administration's own lack of openness, as revealed in the Nature magazine article of last week (see our earlier post).

Third, The Bangkok Post again raises the hoary specter of avian flu being used as a bioweapon, citing an unpublished and highly censored Canadian military report. It is impossible to comment on leaked intimations of dire threats from sources with questionable motives, but suffice it to say use of avian influenza as a bioweapon makes very little sense, at least one designed against humans. Unless one assumes the object is just to kill as many people as possible (nationality, ethnicity and religion irrelevant), H5N1 would be an abysmal weapon. In the case of nutcase apocalyptic "End of Days" thinking, it is implausible they would have the technical expertise to figure out how to do something even today's best virologists can't do: determine what makes the virus efficiently transmitted. If the object is political, it is hard to see how its use could have any political use. Since an outbreak would appear to be natural (unless a group or country took credit for it, which seems like it wouldn't be such a popular thing to do as it would be killing its own people), no political purpose could be served, any more than a group that took credit for Hurricane Katrina would be likely to profit (or be believed). Talk of avian flu as a bioweapon merely diverts attention from the main focus: responding to the primary public health challgenge of managing a naturally occurring epidemic infectious disease in a highly connected global population.

So the editorial is thoughtful, yes. But some of the thinking is flawed.