Synthetic or Natural: Ignore the Threats at Our Peril

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Today Foreign Policy published my feature article, “Flu Season.” In this article I discuss how the policies and laws at both the national and global levels governing the development of bioweapons are inadequate. Given the controversy and policy implications of the man-made H5N1 virus, the power and ability for governments to regulate such information has come into question. In “Flu Season,” I argue that the laws and policies in place fail to address this, and other issues surrounding synthetic biology.

Meanwhile, the H5N1 influenza is taking its toll early this year in Asia and Egypt. Hong Kong went on alert over the viral threat before Christmas, when birds infected with the virus were found in several locations. By December 20, H5N1 was found in chicken flocks, and the Hong Kong government began culling flocks, destroying all animals that resided in facilities where a single infected bird was found. The following day the territory's Director of Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation announced that Hong Kong's entire central poultry market was contaminated, and stepped up control measures.

Hong Kong authorities determined that the virus came into the territory sometime around December 17, carried by black-headed gulls, migratory aquatic birds known to  fly between Guangdong Province, located in Mainland China across Hong Kong's border, and the territory. It was widely rumored in HK that poultry outbreaks were rampant in mainland China: On December 22 the Chinese government suspended all exports of poultry from the Mainland into the territory. Surveillance of Guangdong province chicken farms stepped up that day, as China sought to assure Asian neighbors that it was bringing H5N1 under control. A newly-published study (X.-F. Wan, L. Dong, Y. Shu, et al. Indications that live poultry markets are a major source of human H5N1 influenza virus infection in China. J. Virol. 85:13432-13438) of previous annual H5N1 outbreaks in the region clearly linked each to a specific poultry center inside Guangdong Province.

Over the same time period Egypt wrestled with bird flu. A pregnant mother and her toddler child contracted bird flu in early December: the mother died, while the toddler remains hospitalized. On December 19, an unrelated 29-year-old man from the same Dakahlia region of the country died of H5N1, despite aggressive treatment with Tamiflu, the only drug known to affect the clinical course of H5N1 infection, and a 42-year-old man died oh H5N1 on December 22. By the end of 2011, Egypt ranked first in human H5N1 cases, having suffered thirty-eight of the fifty-nine known human infections worldwide, fifteen of which were fatal.

Outbreaks of H5N1 in birds and commercial poultry were reported throughout December in Nepal, Tibet, many parts of India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia.

Rumors of human cases in Mainland China exacerbated concerns inside Hong Kong. On Christmas Day, Chinaacknowledged that a 39-year-old man had been hospitalized since December 21 in nearby Shenzhen, suffering from H5N1 disease. Shenzhen is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, home to hundreds of factories that churn out electronics and entertainment products for Hong Kong, Japanese, and Western companies. The source of the man's infection was an immediate concern in Hong Kong, as Shenzhen is linked by train to the territory, and is not a center of poultry production.

Chinese official media reported that the ailing bird flu victim was a Mr. Chen, a Shenzhen bus driver with no history of traveling outside the urban center of the enormous city. The bus driver died on New Year's Eve of multiple organ failures, the virus having ravaged every system in his body. Despite aggressive searchers, authorities could find no evidence that Chen was exposed to ailing birds, though genetic analysis matched his strain to the type of H5N1 found in Guangdong poultry and wild birds in Hong Kong.

This particular paragraph from Hong Kong's The Standard is noteworthy:

"The Guangdong Department of Agriculture announced on Saturday that no epidemic of bird flu among poultry has been reported in the province. Hong Kong infectious diseases specialist Lo Wing-lok criticized the center's report as ‘confusing’ and ‘nonsense.’ Lo said: "They cannot say that the virus is similar to that found in wild birds and say the man may have contracted the virus from wild birds. There is no evidence in the whole world that suggests people contract H5N1 through wild birds. It is always through poultry. Does that mean the virus simply fell from the sky?"

Despite culling efforts, Hong Kong authorities announced discovery of more infected birds inside the territory on January 6, 2012. For a summary of 2011 H5N1 reports see .

It is hard to imagine a more powerful set of wake-up calls than the Fouchier and Kawaoka mandmade super-flu experiments, and Nature’s own H5N1 activities. Policymakers and political powerbrokers ignore these trends at great peril.