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Bird flu
July 25, 2005 9:11 AM   Subscribe

What is really going on?
posted by jeffburdges (57 comments total)

 
In other news.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:13 AM on July 25, 2005


In the late stages of Bert Flu, the victim's nose turns orange and swells, while the eyebrows thicken and grow together.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 9:15 AM on July 25, 2005


Do we need another front page post about this? Holy shit, yes, we are all going to die and there aren't enough actual problems to be alarmist about that we need to invent shit.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:16 AM on July 25, 2005


Ladies and gentlemen, the situation we have most feared is here. Fortuantely, horror movies have well prepared us for it, so when the zombies come, we will be ready. For all you non-zombies out there, the code-word is shibboleth. Anyone who doesn't know it is a zombie and should be shot.
posted by leapfrog at 9:19 AM on July 25, 2005


Always remember, shoot for the head, otherwise they just get back up.
posted by Psharden at 9:23 AM on July 25, 2005


Was that Brazillian guy in London a zombie? That changes EVERYTHING.
posted by oh pollo! at 9:30 AM on July 25, 2005


BTW, reasons for posting are (a) dates of the "o", "n", and "other" links, (b) recombinomics.com is an interesting site, and (c) irony with "news" link (yes, Chinese tourists in Britian are a good thing, irrespective of bird flu).
posted by jeffburdges at 9:32 AM on July 25, 2005


Just a thought:

Making the question posed in the FPP hint at what the post was about (even in the slightest) would have been nice. Was "What is really going on?" chosen to be as vague as possible? It certainly wasn't chosen because the number of links you have matched the number of words in the sentence...
posted by piratebowling at 9:42 AM on July 25, 2005


According to the prevailing theory that's posted to the front page at least once a month, 90% of the population are going to be wiped out by avian flu sometime last year.
posted by veedubya at 9:43 AM on July 25, 2005


Why didn't you call attention to those links in the original post then?
posted by smackfu at 9:44 AM on July 25, 2005


I think what he's trying to get at is maybe that Bird Flu is China's invention that it tried to cover-up?

I dont believe it but it's a crazy world nowadays..
posted by pez_LPhiE at 9:45 AM on July 25, 2005


For all you non-zombies out there, the code-word is shibboleth.

That's much better than my first choice of code-words, which was "BRAAAIIIINS!"
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:51 AM on July 25, 2005


Hey, I appreciate the FPP. It was a reminder for me to call my parental units and ask them, once again, to put off their upcoming trip to China. They want to go one last time before they're too old for such a long trip (they're in their 70s), and before the Three Gorges are completely filled. And they're exactly the kind of people who are most at risk for a flu with a high mortality rate.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 9:53 AM on July 25, 2005


In the late stages of Bert Flu, the victim's nose turns orange and swells, while the eyebrows thicken and grow together.

Looks in mirror:
sunburned nose has orangish tint and is swelling...
Check.
sporting unibrow... Check.

Oh crap! I'm dying over here!!!
posted by Fezboy! at 9:57 AM on July 25, 2005


Reading those articles made me wonder, where in the backwoods of Arkansas I will retreat to with my wife, as civalization crumbles? Stockpyles of beeny weenies. Bottled water. Crates of Slim Fast (like in that Deep Impact movie).
And a shot gun with plenty of shells.

Then those birds end up trasmitting the illness to my backwoods abode anyway. All for not. We're screwed.
posted by thisisdrew at 9:58 AM on July 25, 2005


Oh crap! I'm dying over here!!!

Better make sure there's not an arm sprouting out of your keister.
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:09 AM on July 25, 2005


I suspect that the only reason the chicken-little-accusers on Metafilter will survive the bird flu epidemic is because they never go outside, content to have already quarantined themselves behind the smug layers of a keyboard and a monitor for lo' these many years, launching ridicule and taunts from the safety of anonymous sock puppets.

These brave souls will emerge from the apocalypse only when all those whose ideas they've belittled have died. Having no one left to mock on Metafilter, they will finally turn upon each other in a pyrrhic orgy.
posted by Rothko at 10:11 AM on July 25, 2005


Careful, it's shit-weasle season.

FWIW, I live in Vancouver, which I suspect will be the North American entry point for bird flu from Asia. No one here seems overly concerned over it.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:12 AM on July 25, 2005


I run a blog on bird flu (self-link) and I think there are a few things to know about Dr. Niman.

First, as you might notice from the title of his site -- which is the name of a private biotech firm he has founded -- Dr. Niman is a strong proponent of the theory that influenza A viruses evolve primarily through the process of recombination, in which two divergent viruses exchange large chunks of viral genetic material. Recombination itself is not controversial -- HIV-1, for example, has been shown to recombine often to produce novel viruses, for example CRF01_AE, which is the predominant form of HIV-1 in Thailand.

What is controversial is the emphasis that Dr. Niman places on recombination. All the viral geneticists I know of think that influenza A evolves mainly through more subtyle shifts in individual pieces of genetic material.

While the difference between the different theories may appear subtle, or even unimportant, they do have important impacts on viral surveillance and disease interventions. Sometimes I think Dr. Niman is too devoted a proponent of his theory which, it should be pointed out, has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal (or, really, anywhere other than his own blog.) Some basic questions I posed to Dr Niman on the CurEvents discussion board were answered by rhetoric and bluster, imho, by the good doctor.

Secondly, Dr. Niman consistently supports the most dire outlook from available evidence, even when the evidence itself is questionable. For a number of weeks in May and June he unquestioningly supported reports on a Chinese dissident website about thousands of human deaths from bird flu which have not been confirmed by Chinese authorities (big surprise) or by independent epidemiologists who visited the area. In my opinion, he is looking for evidence to fulfill what could be a grudge against established scientists who have not welcomed his theories on recombination.

But hey, who knows. After all, great scientific advances often come from scientists who are rejected by the establishment. I share with Dr. Niman the (rather obvious) observation that the global community is slouching towards disaster when it comes to H5N1; that the countries that should be pushing this agenda are woefully unprepared; that China and Vietnam are repeating the mistakes of SARS by trying to cover-up or suppress the true extent of H5N1 infection in birds and humans in their countries.

For those intereted in following this, I recommend "the Reveres" at the Effect Measure blog and the Flu Wiki.

In the words of Dr. Michael Osterholm, one of America's top scientists and a former Homeland Security advisor on bioterror: "We're screwed."
posted by docgonzo at 10:17 AM on July 25, 2005


ereshkigal45: It was a reminder for me to call my parental units and ask them, once again, to put off their upcoming trip to China. They want to go one last time before they're too old for such a long trip...

I understand your concern for your parents' health and all, but I find the idea of an elderly couple being scared out of their last chance at a trip to China by the nebulous possibility of contracting Bird flu supremely depressing.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 10:26 AM on July 25, 2005


Metafilter: More bird flu news than you can shake a stick at!
posted by illuminatus at 10:27 AM on July 25, 2005


I find the spamming of "recombinomics" stuff on the Wiki page puts me off. They may have some really good information, but they need to lay off the stealth advertising if they want to be taken seriously.
posted by freebird at 10:28 AM on July 25, 2005


I think that guy at recombinomics already has it:
The patient after the infection internal heat birds and beasts flu, the virus meets the ambush, the usual incubation period is 15 days, crosses the patient after the incubation period to be able to appear the blood to be hot, the hands and feet department massively sheds skin, has the red spot phenomenon, the patient lungs can appear the high fever which continues, causes cough which the patient appears suppresses with difficulty, and has the discontinuity to have a poor appetite, dizziness, the body becomes emaciated and so on the symptom, the partial partners have the flu symptom, the partial crowds have the immunity to this type virus, this virus at present treats unusual complex, belongs to the stubborn disease, at present China's many places merely list as this disease the simple chronic pneumonia, the chronic bronchitis, virulent flu, Chinese medicine rebirth all kinds.
!!!
posted by OmieWise at 10:29 AM on July 25, 2005


docgonzo-Thanks for the links.
posted by OmieWise at 10:36 AM on July 25, 2005


Holy shit, yes, we are all going to die and there aren't enough actual problems to be alarmist about that we need to invent shit.

Glad to see you think that every major epidemiologists and every major public health organisation has been screaming blue murder about H5N1 for the past year are wrong; tell me: What specific aspects of viral genetics, the ecology of poultry farming or natural frickin' selection do you think we can safely ignore?
posted by docgonzo at 10:38 AM on July 25, 2005


Careful, it's shit-weasle season.

Sounds like another fan.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:44 AM on July 25, 2005


Careful, it's shit-weasle season.

DUDDITS! [terrible awful movie, that. worst ending ever.]
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:50 AM on July 25, 2005


content to have already quarantined themselves behind the smug layers of a keyboard and a monitor for lo' these many years, launching ridicule and taunts from the safety of anonymous sock puppets.

My old 6th grade teacher used to say, "When you point your finger at others, you've got four other fingers pointing back at yourself". Which is why I accuse people while pointing like this.
posted by dhoyt at 10:51 AM on July 25, 2005


Civil_Disobedient, ROU_Xenophobe: You are both correct, BTW. However, I mostly was referring to Dreamcatcher, which ROU_X correctly points out was an incredibly shitty (pun intended) movie.

Sorry to everyone else for threadjacking...that movie deserves a larger discussion on its own.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:00 AM on July 25, 2005


dhoyt: You point at them with the Tripod bad-referrer image?
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:02 AM on July 25, 2005


docgonzo, thanks I read epidemica weekly for updates on the bird flu. It seems to me from reading your blog and others, everyone is just holding their breath until H5V1 infects someone with standard influenza for it to recombine and become more effective in human-to-human transfer. Why doesn't hasn't this recombination happened with the flu and HIV? Do the viruses have to be genetically similar to a point where it is feasible for them to swap genes? If so what is that point? It seems if we were to take recombination as a fact (which you appear to take a middle ground on), there would be bigger worries than H5V1. Surely people with HIV and much more deadly viruses (Ebola, Marburg) have been in contact with more easily transferable viruses (cold, flu, etc.).
posted by geoff. at 11:10 AM on July 25, 2005


ahem
posted by dhoyt at 11:12 AM on July 25, 2005


Glad to see you think that every major epidemiologists and every major public health organisation has been screaming blue murder about H5N1 for the past year are wrong

You know how there are occasionally religious leaders who spring up predicting the end of the world? And how they have to pick an ominously close date because we all know that the world is going to end eventually, anyway? And then the world doesn't end in the prophet's time frame and everyone who listened to him feels a bit embarassed that they fell for it?

Well, you're one of those prophets of doom, even though you think that you're Jeff Glodblum is "Jurassic Park." Everyone who's been "been screaming blue murder about H5N1 for the past year" has told us that it would take weeks or months. Where is it? I know, I know-- it's coming. Just three more days or something.

(Yes, I know that one is coming eventually. I'm not disputing that part.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:15 AM on July 25, 2005


Why doesn't hasn't this recombination happened with the flu and HIV?

Because one spreads and kills the host quickly and the other spreads and kills slowly. The two viruses use entirely opposite mechanisms for reproduction.
posted by Rothko at 11:16 AM on July 25, 2005


I don't believe the way viruses infect host cells affects the ability for viruses to swap genes. The textbook and everything I've read simply states "related viruses".

Do they have to be in the same family, same genus? Are the possibilities of finding a bridge, or multiple bridges between families possible? It would seem only plausible that eventually a link could be made between a retrovirus and an RNA virus. They are simple enough organisms it would seem at least plausible.
posted by geoff. at 11:31 AM on July 25, 2005


These birds, they vibrate?
posted by fixedgear at 11:32 AM on July 25, 2005


Geoff. - yes, the viruses need to be fairly similar to recombine. Although the Flu and HIV are both RNA viruses, their means of entry into cells are very different; it's unlikely that a protein from HIV (for instance) would confer a selective advantage to an influenza virus. However, between related strains of the same virus, the mix-and-match can lead to much more a virulent and lethal cocktail.

And the methods of entry really are very different. Think of two thieves - one favors a crowbar and goes in through the window, and one favors lockpicks and goes in through the back door. A shiny new Ronco Glass Cutter 2000 is only going to help one of them.

Bad metaphors aside, of course, recombination is very real. Two viruses that are able to recombine may do so when they infect the same cell. I think the crux of the argument that Dr. Niman is involved in is the relative contribution of recombination and standard selection based on mutation in generating the coming plague.

At heart, really, is this - Dr. Niman thinks that the perfect virus is out there, but hasn't yet been thrown together by change. The best infection mechanism is in virus A; the best immune evasion is in virus B; the most lethal consequences are in viruc C. He thinks it's only a matter of time before some poor fool contracts two or three of these viruses at once - and this is entirely possible in a cramped cosmopolitan city - and triggers the recombination of a virus that is a serious plague.

Several other scientists, whom I certainly can't cite by name, think that all those parts don't quite exist yet. But they do, in general, think that there is a heavy selection on the virus itself to become more virulent and (to a certain degree) therefore more lethal. Where most serious virologists agree with Dr. Niman is on the point that we are in serious danger.

The influenza epidemic in 1918 killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. The conditions that allowed it to spread then are still present - we have cosmopolitan and densly populated cities; we have human interaction with animal reservoirs of the virus; we have transportation networks that move people around the world in the time between infection and the first symptoms; and we have (apparrently) a Chinese government that is wasting vaccines - literally our only defense - by using them on the very population of animals in which the virus is breeding. On this last point, they are quite literally breeding a strain of the virus that are immune to our vaccines.

I'm not really the alarmist type, mostly preferring to study butterflies and brains and whatnot. But I have to admit, all of this stuff teriffies me. I work with the people who first identified SARS as a coronavirus, and they are scared too. I know it's a cliche - nearly every article I've read either starts or ends with this - but the real question is not whether we might get a bad case of the flu this year, but instead why there hasn't been a serious pandemic in 80 years, and when we can expect the next one. There's really no reason to think that it isn't around the corner.
posted by metaculpa at 11:34 AM on July 25, 2005


My wife are going to stick it to the man! We're going to China next month and we don't care about no steenkin' bird flu.
posted by Slothrup at 11:38 AM on July 25, 2005


I understand your concern for your parents' health and all, but I find the idea of an elderly couple being scared out of their last chance at a trip to China by the nebulous possibility of contracting Bird flu supremely depressing.

Well, it depends on whether you think the the possibility is, in fact, nebulous, no? And isn't that precisely what people are arguing about on this thread? Some believe the threat is nebulous, and others believe it is significant. I don't doubt for a minute that the Chinese government would engage in a huge coverup, and think the threat is significant enough for my parents to make other plans.

FWIW, there are lots of places my parents can travel, and other places they want to see "one last time" before they are too old for extended trips. They've been to China and other points East many times - it's not like they've never been. Frankly, my Dad, who is second-generation American-born Chinese doesn't even like China or the Chinese that much - he's just a bit obsessive about checking things off "Must See" lists and they've missed the Three Gorges in past trips.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 11:40 AM on July 25, 2005


No one here seems overly concerned over it.

Is a bit concerned. Last year BC had a bird flu outbreak on its hands, some workers got sick and millions of birds had to be culled. I'm not pulling a chicken little with the sky is falling but when your on public transit and the person in front of you works on one of these farms and is coughing up storm part of you wants to run for them thar hills.
posted by squeak at 11:42 AM on July 25, 2005


Geoff: I don't believe the way viruses infect host cells affects the ability for viruses to swap genes. The textbook and everything I've read simply states "related viruses".

Probably not, although it would certainly be much easier if they at least used the same genetic basis (RNA/DNA, double or single-stranded). The real issue is "will a protein from influenza make it easier for HIV to infect cells, given that HIV already has a complicated and very specific method for that infection?" And for that, the specificity of infection methods is very important (and, while unlikely, very difficult to predict).

More bad metaphors - cars go fast, as do airplanes. Will a new propellor from your Folker help your Audi?

Do they have to be in the same family, same genus? Are the possibilities of finding a bridge, or multiple bridges between families possible? It would seem only plausible that eventually a link could be made between a retrovirus and an RNA virus. They are simple enough organisms it would seem at least plausible.

The titles of family and genus are hard to define in viruses; they don't really have a functional meaning, aside from giving us a framework on which to hang our assumptions about their interactions. In general, though - strains of the same virus (species) are certainly capable of recombination; different species have a much harder time, and so on. I don't think there's a hard-and-fast rule, although an actual virologist/epidemiologist is free to chime in here!

RNA viruses are particularly interesting because they mutate so rapidly; thus, there are many different copies of a gene available for recombination, and they are distributed throughout the population of the infected people (or animals). So, given that strains recombine much more easily than anythin else, the most obvious issue is: how diverse a set of strains are present in this population of the infected (or potentially infected), and what might happpen when these strains recombine.

To confuse matters more fully: there's even some evidence that this very diversity of strains in a given population (or a given individual) is beneficial to all of those strains. And, because each strain is mutating so rapidly, it's hard to talk about even a single strain infecting a single person as having a coherent and stable genome. But if there's no single genome, what can the target of natural selection possibly be? It turns out (maybe) that the target is actually the "cloud" of genomes - each slightly different, but with a common theme - that are constantly swapping genes with each other to evade the immune system and to infect the next sucker down the line.

So, you can see why we* worry so much about strains: they're the most likely to recombine, they can do a lot of damage by recombination, and they are bloody hard to understand just by themselves.

*And by we, I mean they.

posted by metaculpa at 11:49 AM on July 25, 2005


Damn those italics!
posted by metaculpa at 11:49 AM on July 25, 2005


Well, you're one of those prophets of doom, even though you think that you're Jeff Glodblum is "Jurassic Park." Everyone who's been "been screaming blue murder about H5N1 for the past year" has told us that it would take weeks or months. Where is it? I know, I know-- it's coming. Just three more days or something.

None of the pandemic warnings I've read -- like this one from the NEJM, or these ones from Foreign Affairs, or this one from Nature -- put a specific timeline on the emergence of pandemic influenza. They all observe the current conditions in Asia with H5N1 and note that we are overdue for another pandemic.

You might want to read those; a little background knowledge is helpful when discussing this topic.
posted by docgonzo at 11:52 AM on July 25, 2005


So when do these Avian Flu Pandemic people officially become a death cult a la Heaven's Gate? Did you guys already cut off your junk?
posted by keswick at 12:00 PM on July 25, 2005


Well, a small bit of good news. It was just announced that the suspected outbreak in China referred to in the FPP turned out to be a bacteria infection, not bird flu.
posted by blahblahblah at 12:05 PM on July 25, 2005


In general, I second what metaculpa types, with two caveats:

I've found it's helpful to disentangle two properties when discussing the spread of viruses: transmissibility and virulence. There is a big debate in evolutionary biology about the interrelationship of these two properties, especially in viruses. Some suggest that a reduction in virulence leads to greater transmissibility (compare the virulence/transmissibility of a cold and HIV, for example) while some think there is no connection. Does the decline in virulence of H5N1 over the last year mean an increase in transmissibility? Let's hope not.

Secondly, remember that evolution is a process of survival of the fittest but viruses do not "know" what fitness is; in other words, they do not make conscious choices about the direction of evolution. A virus is a little protein machine that infects a cell and hijacks the cell's own protein-making machinery, forcing it to churn out copies of the virus. Viruses evolve so quickly because (most) are so bad at this part: the protein that copies HIV-1, for example, makes errors thousands of times more often than a comparable human protein. That greater variety of "children" means a higher probability one (or many, many more) might be better adapted than a parent.

That's what makes H5N1 so worrying. It is now endemic in poultry in Asia and has branched out into other species: migratory birds, cats, etc. With each replication -- or recombination -- comes another chance a novel virus will be generated that will be transmissible human-to-human and be pathogenic. That is the nightmare scenario.
posted by docgonzo at 12:06 PM on July 25, 2005


Since when is influenza an RNA virus?

Also, a problem that HIV and flu would have, beyond being so different that it would be like swapping out parts between a Ford and an F-15, is that they are not active (which they'd have to be to recombine) in the same cells.

This info source is extremely suspicious, and it perpetuates a myth about pandemics -

They fear that the severe lethal strain will be carried to Europe by migrating birds. However, it's hard to fly hundreds of kilometers if you're severely ill or, y'know, dead. Epidemics tend to: a) lessen in severity in order to spread, b) require a passive mode of transport for incapacitated carriers, or c) remain locally limited. The Spanish flu had B, but diseases that depend on animals as the vector either spread through commercial products (like meat, which is claimed in the sources, but one wonders how meat gets virally contaminated by flu) or don't spread far.
posted by DarbyMac at 12:13 PM on July 25, 2005


My time has finally arrived...
posted by Captaintripps at 12:22 PM on July 25, 2005


Since when is influenza an RNA virus?
Well, at least since 1981. Or, sorry, 1963.
I don't get it - are you saying that I should have said the influenza virus is an RNA virus? (I should have.)

Thanks for the caveats, docgonzo; all true.

This info source is extremely suspicious, and it perpetuates a myth about pandemics -
They fear that the severe lethal strain will be carried to Europe by migrating birds


It seems more likely (to me) that humans will be the carriers. Like, um, SARS. And that it may also be spread through commercial food products. Like civets in the case of SARS (the civets were infected, and then slaughtered - they're not saying that the slabs of meat were infected). For the flu, I guess the pig/bird meat possibilities are endless; but I don't think much of that meat travels very far.
posted by metaculpa at 12:32 PM on July 25, 2005


So...those of us dismissing all this talk of H5N1 as Chicken Little alarmism are right until proven wrong, in which case it's too late and we're all fscked. Have I got it?
posted by alumshubby at 12:34 PM on July 25, 2005


Since when is influenza an RNA virus?

Influenza A is one of the orthomyxoviridae, negative-sense RNA virus.

However, it's hard to fly hundreds of kilometers if you're severely ill or, y'know, dead

Unless the infection is asymptomatic. That's why they call them, y'know, carriers.
posted by docgonzo at 12:35 PM on July 25, 2005


Sorry, I was thinking retrovirus.

The point about the birds is that the ones chicken little'd in the source aren't asymptomatic.
posted by DarbyMac at 1:29 PM on July 25, 2005


Retroviridae are RNA viruses. That's why they're retro-viruses (i.e. they have to copy their genome into host DNA, the reverse of the usual DNA -> RNA -> protein path.)
posted by docgonzo at 4:25 PM on July 25, 2005


I'll bet I hate being governed by FEMA even more than being governed by the current idiots.

They'll tell me it's for my own good, too.
posted by Balisong at 4:41 PM on July 25, 2005


Thanks docgonzo and metaculpa.

For a nasty H5N1 to be carried to Europe by migratory birds, wouldn't the virus need to first need to optimize itself for human-human transmission a bit in human hosts, and then reinfect migratory birds? Seems a little far fetched. Wouldn't the SARS model be far more likely?
posted by jeffburdges at 2:57 AM on July 26, 2005


http://www.epidemi.ca/
posted by glider at 6:23 AM on July 26, 2005


MajorCurley,

Trying to compare discussing the current danger of a flu pandemic with discussing the danger of the world ending because some cultist says it will is PROFOUNDLY dumb. Not just dumb -- mindbogglingly dumb. Orders of magnitude dumber than saying (for example) that discussing the danger of car accidents is pointless, because, yeah people are always saying we could get wiped out by a supernova. Or saying that discussing the relative returns of various blue-chip investments is stupid because, if you wanna gamble, you might as well put your money in lottery tickets.

Take some math courses. Get yourself some sort of sense of relative probabilities; some sort of ability to pick out from the sensationalist headlines what is actually relevant. The danger of a flu pandemic is very relevant -- because there already is one underway. Just so far not in humans. We hope.
posted by lastobelus at 1:00 PM on July 26, 2005


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