Effect Measure

The politics of swine flu’s origin

A story in yesterday’s New York Times was headlined: In New Theory, Swine Flu Started in Asia, Not Mexico. That sounded pretty interesting. What’s the new evidence? The answer? None. Just speculation. So what’s going on?

Contrary to the popular assumption that the new swine flu pandemic arose on factory farms in Mexico, federal agriculture officials now believe that it most likely emerged in pigs in Asia, but then traveled to North America in a human.

But they emphasized that there was no way to prove their theory and only sketchy data underpinning it.

There is no evidence that this new virus, which combines Eurasian and North American genes, has ever circulated in North American pigs, while there is tantalizing evidence that a closely related ?sister virus? has circulated in Asia.

American breeding pigs, possibly carrying North American swine flu, are frequently exported to Asia, where the flu could have combined with Asian strains. But because of disease quarantines that make it hard to import Asian pigs, experts said, it is unlikely that a pig brought the new strain back West.

?The most likely scenario is that it came over in the mammalian species that moves most freely around the world,? said Dr. Amy L. Vincent, a swine flu specialist at the Agriculture Department?s laboratory in Ames, Iowa, referring, of course, to people. (Don McNeil, New York Times)

This is a theory that comes from the Department of Agriculture, an agency that both regulates and promotes the industry. The fact is the data just aren’t there, one way or another. A Nature article we discussed a couple of weeks ago showed all 8 segments were of swine lineage but that the historical surveillance record was so incomplete in time and geographic regions that it was impossible to say where or when the critical combination came together. The jump to humans may have been as recent as the first of the year, but we don’t know how long the virus has been circulating in animal reservoirs (presumably swine). Something that looks similar (but still differs by a whole segment) was seen in Hong Kong in 2004, but with such a sparse record we have no idea if other similar viruses were also around somewhere, including in North American.

The folks from the Department of Agriculture are frank that they are speculating. But it’s not random speculation. I don’t think it’s an accident that the agriculture folks are blaming humans, while the health community is focusing on the jump from animals, presumably at a place near the outbreak itself. A widespread suspicion factory farming is either to blame or helped stoke the outbreak is vigorously denied by agribusiness, the pork industry and the company widely suspected (Smithfield Farms in Veracruz, Mexico), but the evidence for or against is unclear and the matter is not laid to rest.

So the back and forth continues:

Scientists tracking the virus?s lineage have complained that there is far too little global surveillance of flu in swine. Public databases have 10 times as many human and avian flu sequences as they do porcine ones, said Dr. Michael W. Shaw, a scientist in the flu division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there are far fewer pig flu sequences from Asia than from North America and Europe, and virtually none from South America or Africa. ?Something could have been going on there for a long time and we wouldn?t know,? Dr. Shaw said.

But national veterinary officials said they knew of no close relatives of the new virus in the large private North American databases, either. That makes it most likely, they said, that it has been circulating in Asia. (New York Times)

This repeats a pattern we have seen with bird flu. There we have an even more complicated mix. There is a gigantic factory farming related to poultry, with culling millions of birds a common control practice with important economic consequences. There is also an active bird conservation contingent who reacts immediately to any suggestion that wild birds are spreading avian flu. They are (appropriately) concerned that blaming migratory birds will cause countries to clear natural habitats to exclude migratory birds from an area or even incite mass culling. The public health community would rather blame migratory birds than migratory humans.

This controversy often plays out at the level of government agency politics. In China the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture are constantly at loggerheads, with the health authorities strong proponents of transparency in new cases while the agriculture folks — well, let’s just say, they’re not advocates of transparency. And in the US, CDC and Department of Agriculture each have their perspectives, not to mention Smithfield Farms and the National Pork Producers Council.

So did swine flu originate outside Mexico? I don’t know. But I think the theory originated outside of science.

Comments

  1. #1 Snowy Owl
    June 25, 2009

    Sadly Revere from reading on-line news from major newspaper in the World and in many languages there are National and pharmaceuticals responses that is serious and that certainly will have real impacts on Individual.

    John Barry the author of the book “The Great Influenza” wrote two days ago in Wapo an article entitle “Pandemic Reality Check” in wich he state

    “The bottom line?

    Little can be done in the short term beyond exerting diplomatic pressure to guarantee that foreign governments allow manufacturers to honor contracts to export vaccine.”

    From what I am aware of the same apply concerning the uncertainty of the availability or the accessibility of regular medicine produce in foreign countries, (Insulin, nitro, medical equipments, personal protective equipments, etc..).

    It is more apparent week after week that Nationalistic measures are presently implemented when not already in effect.

    John Barry article at
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/22/AR2009062202386_Comments.html

    Snowy Owl

  2. #2 K
    June 25, 2009

    Business as ususal. Politics, advertizing, propaganda all substitute for recognizing real problems and fixing them Regardless of where swine flu got its start, the way we raise food is a recipe for disaster – already caused many and bound to cause more.
    http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_industrial_agriculture/cafos-uncovered.html
    “The U.S. livestock industry—a large and vital part of agriculture in this country—has been undergoing a drastic change over the past several decades. Huge CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) have become the predominant method of raising livestock, and the crowded conditions in these facilities have increased water and air pollution and other types of harm to public health and rural communities.

    CAFOs are not the inevitable result of market forces. Instead, these unhealthy operations are largely the result of misguided public policy that can and should be changed.

    In this report, the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzes both the policies that have facilitated the growth of CAFOs and the enormous costs imposed on society by CAFOs. We also discuss sophisticated and efficient alternatives for producing affordable animal products, and offer policy recommendations that can begin to lead us toward a healthy and sustainable food system.”

  3. #3 Jon Schultz
    June 25, 2009

    Excellent.

  4. #4 Paul
    June 25, 2009

    Two points:

    (1) Well, at least the world has reached a stage where scapegoats are based upon biased pseudoscience for national economic and political motives. During the bubonic plague of the 14th century, the scapegoats were the Jews, accused of poisoning the wells. Human knowledge has advanced, but human nature doesn’t change.

    (2) It was a recent Internet viewing of a PETA undercover video of the horrible lives and deaths of animals, from infancy to their sadistic forms of death, that changed me into an absolute Vegan, only a few months ago, at the age of 62. Never was a hunter or fisherman, but maintained a sanguine ignorance of what others were doing to put meat, milk and eggs on my table. I agree that conditions in which these factory farms produce their “products,” would convince anyone with any inkling of biologic training, that these are cesspools – giant petri dishes for incubating and mutating killer organisms. Only bad things can come from such virtual hells of inhumanness.

    Anyone wishing to hear a succinct and excellent lecture on this ongoing animal holocaust (though this term is inappropriately overused, I daresay it is appropriate here) may go here: http://www.goveg.com/veganism.asp

  5. #5 paiwan
    June 26, 2009

    Paul:

    You have gone a little bit too far. We should eat the food items with diversity. I agree that we should eat more vegetables, but complete veganism is lethal, the pregnant women can not have robust babies, the babies with the feeding of veganism will lead to malnutrition development.

    Seafood except whale, shark and longer life- span fishes which contain mercury is harmful to babies. In general seafood is the good source of DHA and selenium, and having lots of health benefits.

    http://www.seafoodsource.com/newsarticledetail.aspx?id=4294967511

    I tend to agree with K’s viewpoints which are the focal messages in several places; for instance,

    “They are now in the desperate mode of breeding high health (they hope) pigs and creating vaccines instead of changing how they raise the pigs. In the end no doubt they would have been better off without the huge pig factories but they lacked the foresight to peer into the future and see their “efficiency” as dangerous since it was so profitable in the present. Common defect of our economic system.”

    And “ I have read that chicks may gain some natural immunity from ingesting some of the feces of their mother.”
    http://scienceblogs.com/effectmeasure/2009/05/lets_call_a_swine_a_swine.php

    The modern animal husbandry indeed has many mistakes which have lead to the problems in public health. MRSA is the most prominent case of pig farm’s abuse in antibiotics feeding to pigs. Perhaps, swine flu and bird flu very soon to be discovered somehow are relating human’s mistakes in animals food production.

  6. #6 Paul
    June 26, 2009

    Paiwan,
    I understand that all nutritional needs for protein, essential vitamins, etc. *can* be obtained from soy, and other vegetable sources (most notably nuts, beans and brocoli, etc). Plus there are the synthetic supplemental vitamins (for instance the need for additional folic acid for women of child-bearing age, let alone pregnancy, per se).

    Though this dietary change is for me out of my love for animals (I don’t really care that much for purported health advantages), I strongly suggest you visit PETA’s Web site, where there are plenty of films exposing the horrid treatment of animals (one example, the hot-knife amputation of baby chicks’ beaks). The lecture I suggested listening to yesterday covers all of this in a very thorough and intelligent way.

    There are many other positive aspects to this choice of food source, such as the amount of energy consumed to grow enough plant foods to feed one cow, that could serve as direct nutrition for humans at a much more efficient ratio of use.

    When I was in medical school, I put my incipient career at risk by refusing to take part in the fatal dissection of living dogs (even though anesthetized). So it’s a personal thing for me, but I must admit that my individual discontinuation of contributing to this butchery will have so little effect, gives me small comfort.

  7. #7 DVM
    June 26, 2009

    As a veterinarian, I would like to comment on all of your accusations. CAFOs are not the mixing pot for viruses and disease that you have been misled to believe. On a modern farm, where do the pigs go? Where are they exposed to multiple strains of flu or any other virus? Modern farms take great pains at biosecurity including showering in of all employees and visitors. As there are fewer farms today than several years ago, they are usually several miles away from the nearest livestock farms (unlike when I grew up and every farm up and down the road had pigs and cows outside).
    When a herd of pigs is exposed to a susceptable stain of flu, the virus goes through the entire herd in about 10 days. The only way that a new stain could develope is if during that 10 day period, a new strain would come in and comingle with the circulating virus. The odds of that are very minimal considering how little exposure the animals have to other people and other herds.
    On the other hand, in a city such as New York City, how many people live there? Twenty million? Where do these people go everyday? The average person probably goes to an average of 4-5 places everyday; from school, work, gym, grocery store, restaraunt, gas station etc. What is the chance that a person just coming down with the flu is exposed to another strain? Pretty good chance of this happening.
    This is why agriculture people are concerned about wild birds and people in their biosecurity protocol.
    I do not deny that the current novel strain of H1N1 containied a swine serotype as well as avian and human, but I would adamantly argue that the swine genome was carried out of the farm by a person and that it mixed in the human population. It is simple biology people.

    As to your misguided comments about CAFOs, pigs on modern farms are not mistreated and raised in crowded and filthy conditions. Contrary to what PETA and HSUS tell you, modern farms came about to eliminate runnoff from manure and because the modern buildings keep animals cleaner, healthier and better. Modern pig production has essentially eliminated all internal and external parasites as well as trichinosis! Go back to outdoor production and you will be dealing with intestinal parasites, lice and mange and a return of trichinosis. Animals will have to put up with wind storms, flooding, and blizzards. And contrary to what Michael Pollan says, pigs and chickens are two of the most destructive animals to the environment if left outside. Pigs root up the soil and make mud holes and cause severe erosion. They will kill a woods completely in about 10 years. And where is their manure contained to when it rains? On modern farms, the manure is all contained and regulated and applied as organic fertilizer.

    As for the videos produced by PETA and HSUS, what is their agenda? First off they are trying to raise money. They have to create a crisis or fear in order to get people to send in money. Secondly, their agenda is to convince people of their Vegan agenda. There are farms that do a poor job and give all of agriculture a bad name, but I guarantee that they represent a very small percentage of modern farms. Why not visit a farm or take a U-tube video tour of a farm instead of believing an activist group.

  8. #8 paiwan
    June 27, 2009

    Paul:

    I’ve visited the website that you recommend about vegetarian. One point that I’ve pinpointed by quoting the seafood source website, not all fish flesh has mercury. And seafood has many others, not only fish. The promotion is somehow biased.

    In fact, I can provide with the adverse viewpoint- an article “Death by Veganism”.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/21/opinion/21planck.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Death%20of%20veganism&st=cse

    DVM:

    Perhaps you know that the bird flu has the record of killing zoo tiger and house cat. The virus of bird flu mostly comes from poultry to cause human and domesticated animals’ infections.

    How come the poultry’s chickens are naive and vulnerable to virus’ attack? K’s point has speculated the mistreatment of breeding the chicks. Modern pig farms now have adopted artificial insemination. All the modern protocol is directing towards the economic gain for human and despite the health and natural immunity of animals themselves- that is the area need to be vigilant, as far as the public health is concerned.

    The typical treatment to animal husbandry is when the troubled disease outbreaks; they contain them and slaughter them and temporarily erase the troublesome. Foot and mouth disease and bird flu are the same token.

    We, human beings are not exposed to bio-security and can not be bred selectively like the animals are treated. Meanwhile, the containment and slaughter are not the ways to tackle the infections.

    I personally assume that the animal should be considered the sustaining of natural immunity of their own; that will eliminate lots of problem from them which they become the virus reservoirs.

    We are now taking care of not only the tree-husbandry, but also the forest-avoiding the mistreatments which have caused the public infections like bird flu, MRSA, etc.

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