Reply from Mark Siegel

A while back I did a post about Mark Siegel, the author of the book Bird Flu, which received a number of comments. Among those, Tara took Siegel to task for appearing to suggest, in the Washington Post, that there's no need to prepare emergency supplies of food and water in anticipation of an outbreak.

Recently I heard from Siegel, who wrote in to clarify his position and invited me to post his email. Here's what he had to say:

Dear Chris,
thanks for mentioning my new book on your blog in what i thought was a very respectful way.

FYI - i am actually in favor of emergency supplies of food and water for things like blackouts or unexpected catastrophes of many kinds. The Washington Post excerpt naturally took this out of the context of my book, which made it look like I'm against all emergency supplies, which I'm not. My issue was with labelling them "bird flu" persay, which sends the message that an attack is imminent, which would require significant mutation to the H5N1 molecule (and even then, as we saw with swine flu and SARS, a virus with potential to create a large pandemic doesn't always create one). I am concerned about H5N1 because of its potential, but feel that the primary thrust at this point should be to put more effort into controlling it in birds. (This is the consensus of several bird flu experts i interviewed for the book).

Preparing for a future pandemic makes sense, but how you do it has to do with how much emphasis you place on the worst case scenario. If our public health officials acknowledge that the current system is woefully inadequate, but also realize that the chance of H5N1 transforming into a massive human pandemic over the next year or two is very very small, it would influence policy. An example is vaccine manufacture. We currently use an antiquated method which will be inefficient in protecting us even if we stockpile it because of time delays and because flu viruses often change. A more efficient approach would be to focus on upgrading vaccine manufacture more quickly using the reverse genetics and cell culture techniques already available to us from use in other routine vaccines (hep b, chicken pox, etc.)

Finally, it is very important that the fear virus be considered here in addition to the bird virus. Consider France, where a single chicken gets H5N1 bird flu, and as a result, 46 countries outside the EU cut off imports of French poultry. This industry, number 4 in the world, is now hemmorhaging 48 million dollars monthly, despite the fact that fully cooking chicken infected with H5N1 kills it 100% of the time. I realize there needs to be restrictions in place to prevent further spread of bird flu among susceptible (and poorly immunologically prepared) chickens, but the fear virus is spreading much faster than any risk of bird flu (Italy, for example, was down 70% in poultry consumption the week after there was a small outbreak in wild birds).

feel free to post this or any part of it.

Sounds fair enough to me....

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