Bird flu bird brains and Bush brains

I am still trying to retrieve my lower jaw from the floor, where it fell after reading this:

When Indonesia's health minister stopped sending bird flu viruses to a research laboratory in the U.S. for fear Washington could use them to make biological weapons, Defense Secretary Robert Gates laughed and called it "the nuttiest thing" he'd ever heard.

Yet deep inside an 86-page supplement to United States export regulations is a single sentence that bars U.S. exports of vaccines for avian bird flu and dozens of other viruses to five countries designated "state sponsors of terrorism."

The reason: Fear that they will be used for biological warfare. (AP)

Scientists are baffled how a vaccine could become a bioweapon or why North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Syria or Sudan are required to apply for special export licenses. Three of these nations -- Iran, Cuba and Sudan -- are banned from getting a US sourced vaccine against pandemic influenza under the terms of the US embargo. If you apply the Principle of Parsimony you will seek the simplest explanation, which in this case is also the most plausible: stupidity and incompetence on the part of the Bush administration antiterrorism bureaucrats.

Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and CDC officials apparently didn't even know about these bans, which also cover vaccines for Dengue and other diseases and also vaccines against bird flu for poultry and humans. If ever there was a self-defeating and ridiculous policy in the age of global interconnection, this is it. When disease in a small village on the edge of the rain forest can travel to an international travel hub within the incubation period of virtually any known disease of concern, this kind of policy endangers everyone, including all US citizens.

Maybe it's just a mistake, an overlooked and inappropriate inclusion in a larger scheme of economic sanctions. All that would be necessary to correct it would be to acknowledge the error and remove the ban or requirements. But, no, it isn't a mistake:

U.S. Commerce Assistant Secretary Christopher Wall declined to elaborate on the precise threat posed by vaccines for chickens infected with avian influenza, except to say there are "valid security concerns" that they "do not fall into the wrong hands."

"Legitimate public health and scientific research is not adversely affected by these controls," he said.

Declining to elaborate on the precise threat is pretty obvious, because no scientist I know thinks it makes sense for a vaccine to be considered a bioweapon. Current plans for confronting the start of a pandemic are to rush vaccines and antivirals to the affected area to slow the progress and allow precious extra time to prepare.

Under normal circumstances it would take at least six weeks to approve export licenses for any vaccine on the list, said Thomas Monath, who formerly headed a CIA advisory group on ways to counter biological attacks. All such decisions would follow negotiations at a "very high level" of government.

That could makes it harder to contain an outbreak of bird flu among chickens in, say, North Korea, which is in the region hardest hit by the virus. Sudan and Iran already have recorded cases of the virus in poultry and Syria is surrounded by affected countries. Cuba, like all nations, is vulnerable because the disease is delivered by migratory birds.

Kumanan Wilson, whose research at the University of Toronto focuses on policymaking in areas of health protection, said it would be ironic if the bird flu virus morphed into a more dangerous form in one of those countries.

Bird flu vaccines don't contain live viruses, so they can't be used as weapons. You can't use them to make resistant strains, either. Anyway, if a party wanted to purchase poultry vaccines there are many sources, including China and Vietnam.

The ethics of US foreign policy is again called into question when we use vaccines and medicines as tools to punish states we disagree with. The leaders of these states don't suffer. Only their citizens.

Meanwhile, this merely vindicates that raging nutcase and incompetent, Indonesian health minister Siti Fadilah Supari, who first raised the issue of US bioweapons policy in the debate over sharing influenza viruses. Perhaps vindicates is the wrong word. More appropriately, it shows that the US has its own raging nutcases and incompetents, like U.S. Commerce Assistant Secretary Christopher Wall and his colleagues.

Small minds, thinking tiny, in unison.

More like this

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US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, is in Indonesia to discuss matters of mutual interest with the Indonesian government. Topic number one was the Indonesian government's opt out of the international influenza surveillance system which has been in place for almost 60 years…
Indonesia's health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, has answered the question whether the recently concluded Geneva summit on sharing of influenza viruses had produced sufficient agreement to induce that country to begin sharing again. Her answer seems to be "no": Indonesia's health minister…
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Could it be that the vaccine is considered a "weapon" because it could be used to inoculate the chosen people(s) whereupon the virus itself is deliberately disseminated, sickening or killing the uninoculated?

Can we file this under "One Flu Under the Cuckoo's Nest"?!

Aside from the specific preposterous details of this case, the story illustrates a much larger problem of information hoarding and "silo's."

This is a serious problem, with global ramifications, both within and between CDC, HHS, other Departments and Ministries in the U.S. and other countries, and WHO, and other UN agencies as well.

One pathetic example: I know someone who was in the ridiculously frustrating position of advising the U.S. CDC to offer assistance (based on its own previous experience and painful lessons-learned) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, during a USDA food safety crisis. The CDC officials said, "We can't talk directly to them. It has to be communicated Secretary (HHS) to Secretary (USDA)."

They didn't make this happen, and the USDA repeated earlier CDC-type mistakes. So instead, the involved person wrote an unsolicited public memo -- much less efficient, and potentially more embarrassing to the agencies.

The problem of silo'd communication within agencies, and the jealous hoarding of information even within one agency, is ubiquitous, wasteful, disreputable, and dangerous.

By Path Forward (not verified) on 12 Oct 2008 #permalink

Thank you for highlighting this. Are the folks at FluWiki on this?

What's the process for remedying this? If I have a fairly concrete idea of what reasonable next steps might be, I'll get on with contacting the appropriate committee members, my reps and my blog readers.

Annie: No idea whom to contact. Appropriate committees overseeing Dept. of Commerce I'd guess. Anyone else know?

Thanks, Revere. I'll start there and I'll check in at FluWiki and see if they are on it.

I may also contact the American Nurses Association (which just endorsed Obama and which has human rights and pandemic flu position statements) and the International Council of Nurses.

I guess it wouldn't hurt to contact the DHHS and CDC, as well as DHS since it's also a national (in)security issue.

And Henry Waxman, the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will be interested.

And.... well I'll get started there. ;)

I rounded up most of the governmental and blogosphere cast of characters in a contacts list post. Link at my name for anyone interested. John Kerry is a senior member of the Senate Commerce, Energy and Transportation Committee, so this might be a local contact for you, Revere.

Conspiracy theories are normally deemed to be the domain of unhinged paranoid citizens in fear of their governments tyrannical tendencies. This administration has shown that in the spirit of inclusiveness it has been happy to bring plenty of them into the fold ready to spot the Dr. Strangloves lurking in all those wicked Islamo-Communist states.

It isn't paranoia if they really are out to get you. I think the Bush administration has demonstrated that the degree of harm they are trying to cause goes far beyond stupidity, ignorance and incompetence.

To me, this is a crime against humanity. If those countries were under military occupation by the United States, it would be a war crime to deny them access to these vaccines.

The paranoid conspiracy theory industry capitalizes on stirring up irrational fear among people who aren't smart enough to assess risks intelligently.

The Bush administration does the same thing. They also behave like PCT's- look at the way they saw only the evidence they wanted to see regarding WMDs in Iraq, and how hard they worked at blocking out all contradictory evidence.

An administration that makes Alex freakin' Jones look statesmanlike- I think that might be what JJackson was driving at.

By Ktesibios (not verified) on 13 Oct 2008 #permalink

Perhaps daedalus is right and I have made the mistake of thinking the drafters of this legislation were seeing conspiracies where none exist but in reality they have brilliantly foreseen the consequences of US foreign policy taken to its logical conclusion.
Consider: If you devise a foreign policy based on killing large swaths of other countries nationals or failing that just laying waste to their countries and you foresee that for each one you kill you create a hundred martyrs for their cause then you have two choices. [1] Stop. (Obvious ridiculous as this is not how we promised it would end)
[2] Send in more troops. (Now were talking - this is the American way)
Given the correct answer is [2] then at some point every country (except the US of A and possibly Israel) is going to be peopled by survivors whos raison detre is to kill Americans at which point any weapon at their disposal will be used.
Now arent you glad that we have the legislation on the statutes and all we need to do is add the name of each country as we piss them off. Just cutnpaste from role of UN states what could be simpler.

Has anyone actually found the regulations yet. I have been search for them and cant seem to find them.