Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Avian flu is demanding admission to the European Union and it will not be refused. Despite brave promises by veterinary and public health officials to seal borders and quash new outbreaks, H5N1 is an almost irresistible force.
Already last year, veteran researchers were warning that avian flu had become ineradicable among wild birds and domestic poultry. Previous hopes that it was not easily transmissible among wild birds were dashed this spring when Chinese researchers discovered a huge epidemic at Lake Qinghai in western China. Initially the outbreak was confined to a small islet in the huge salt lake where geese suddenly began to act spasmodically, then to collapse and die. By mid-May, however, the lake’s entire avian population was infected and thousands of birds were dying. An ornithologist called it ‘the biggest and most extensively mortal avian influenza event ever seen in wild birds’.
Chinese virologists, meanwhile, were shocked by the virulence of the new strain. When mice were infected with the Qinghai virus they died even more quickly than when injected with ‘genotype Z’, the fearsome N5N1 variant currently killing people in Vietnam and Indonesia. (Both strains, incidentally, are 100 per cent lethal to mice.)
Yi Guan, leader of the world-famous team of avian flu researchers in Hong Kong, who have been fighting the pandemic menace since 1997, complained to the Guardian in July about the lackadaisical response of Chinese authorities to the biological conflagration at Lake Qinghai. ‘They have taken almost no action to control this outbreak,’ he said. ‘They should have asked for international support. These birds will go to India and Bangladesh and then they will meet birds that come from Europe.’
In a paper published in Nature, Yi Guan and his associates also revealed that the Qinghai strain was probably derived from officially unreported recent incidences of avian flu among birds in southern China. This confirmed suspicions that Chinese authorities were continuing to conceal disease outbreaks from the rest of the world – just as they had also lied previously about the nature and extent of the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic.
As in the case of earlier SARS’ whistleblowers, the bureaucracy immediately retaliated against Yi Guan for his scientific honesty, shutting down one of his laboratories at Shantou University and arming the conservative agriculture ministry with new powers to vet basic research. And while Beijing was censoring research, avian flu’s human epicentre was expanding. In mid-July Indonesian health officials confirmed that a father and his young daughters had died of avian flu in a wealthy suburb of Jakarta. At the same time, five new outbreaks amongst poultry were reported in Thailand, dealing an embarrassing blow to the nation’s extensive and highly-publicised campaign to eradicate the disease. Vietnamese officials, for their part, renewed appeals for international aid as H5N1 claimed new victims in the country that remains the outbreak centre of highest concern to the
World Health Organisation.
Meanwhile, the birds at Lake Qinghai were taking flight toward their wintering grounds on five continents. H5N1 punctually arrived at the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet; it was detected in western Mongolia and Kazakhstan; and, most disturbingly, it began to kill chickens and wildfowl near the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk – a halfway point along flightways to the Black Sea and southern Europe.
The arrival of avian flu in Iran, Turkey and Romania was no surprise, therefore. Its next destinations may include the Nile Valley, southern India, Bangladesh, Australia, Alaska, northern Canada and eventually the whole world. Even if avian flu posed no human health threat, it is already a global ecological cataclysm that threatens incalculable devastation to wild birds as well as to the billions of chickens that now constitute our second largest source of animal protein (pigs, also now succumbing to avian flu, are the largest).
Robert Wallace, a University of California scientist who is studying how pandemic influenza might spread, told me that H5N1 is a ‘more sophisticated Darwinian search engine than Google’. He says that it is outsmarting us in four decisive ways.
First, ‘H5N1 is flying underneath the social radar: few humans yet infected, but the strain is seeding broad regions. It is changing not only at the molecular level but at the epidemiological level as well.’ Second, ‘In spreading geographically, and infecting more chickens, H5N1 broadens the base of operations from which it can begin a pandemic.’
Third, ‘By spreading geographically H5N1 enters countries that have no experience in detecting or grappling with such outbreaks.’ And fourth, ‘If dispersal is related to increasing the number of chickens infected – and expanding the evolutionary space H5N1 has to play in – then the time of onset of an outbreak of human-to-human infection becomes compressed.’ The bottom line, in other words, is that each new outpost of H5N1, whether among chickens in Turkey, ducks in Siberia, pigs in China, or humans in Indonesia, is a further opportunity for the rapidly evolving virus to acquire the gene or even more simply, the amino acid substitutions it needs to massacre vulnerable human populations.
There are, of course, sceptics (although usually not amongst virologists) who argue that avian flu is merely a ‘theoretical threat’, and that there may be some ‘factor X’ that is preventing H5N1 from acquiring facile transmissibility amongst humans. Many researchers are indeed puzzled that a pandemic hasn’t already emerged, but there is little evidence for the existence of a ‘factor X’ structurally inhibiting H5N1’s mutation. Quite the contrary: a breathtaking (and dangerous) scientific experiment in August confirmed frightening similarities between the current avian virus and the 1918 influenza that killed 40 to 100 million people in the autumn of 1918.
After a decade of painstaking lab work using lung tissue samples retrieved from corpses of 1918 victims, a team headed by Jeffery Taubenberger at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, outside of Washington DC, succeeded this summer in deciphering the complete genome of the 1918 virus. In a discovery that shocked many researchers, they found that the 1918 virus was a purely avian strain that had acquired human transmissibility through a series of surprisingly simple mutations rather than through a mixing of avian and human flu genes in a co-infected pig or person. This implies that H5N1 may not, after all, have to ‘reassort’ genes with a human virus: it may acquire pandemic velocity through its own modest evolution.
So, as H5N1 – which some ducks transport without any symptoms – prowls around the edges of EU agriculture, there is little basis for discounting official warnings from the WHO and innumerable experts that a pandemic is ‘imminent’. ‘Imminent’, of course, could mean this winter or 2007. And so far, European health ministers have acted as if either the threat or the EU didn’t exist.
Each government has made an independent assessment of the peril and responded accordingly. While some have taken the flu apocalypse seriously enough to begin to stockpile millions of courses of antiviral drugs, others have barely even got around to the surveillance of poultry. None have yet got to grips with the decisive role of the huge European pharmaceutical corporations.
When, at a WHO meeting earlier in the year, Thailand and South Africa raised the question of the generic production of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) in the third world, France and the United States joined forces to quash the challenge to Roche’s current monopoly over the drug. Likewise, when I visited the WHO’s influenza programme in Geneva this August, I was told that the WHO had for the time being abandoned any hope of a ‘world vaccine’ to combat avian flu, largely because it discounted the willingness of the EU to make the necessary commitment to mobilise its vaccine production lines or of GM (genetic modification) opponents to allow the use of ‘reverse genetic engineering’ (the technology that made the recreation of the 1918 virus possible). Europeans should take little solace in the even more dreadful state of preparedness in the US, where despite throwing away billions of dollars on imaginary threats of bioterrorism, Bush’s ‘homeland security’ precautions have failed to build antiviral stockpiles or rebuild vaccine production capacity.
The most dangerous migration of H5N1 in recent weeks is not its Black Sea vacation, but its inexorable movement toward the mega-cities of Africa and south Asia. We should be most worried about the imminent explosive convergence of urban poverty and avian influenza. Even if the EU got its collective act together – as it must do, urgently – it would be to little avail if a 1918-type pandemic erupted in the vast slums of Kinshasa or Mumbai.
Neither fortress-style epidemiological nationalism nor idiot reverence for the profits of Big Pharma (and Roche in particular) should override the principle of human solidarity in the face of the coming pandemic. Our common survival demands an adequate lifeline of vaccines, antivirals and antibiotics as a human right.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going