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«Avian Flu: Barbarians in the Coop “Without chicken, there will not be a banquet.” —Chinese Proverb For an ancient and yet nasty poultry virus, ...»

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Avian Flu: Barbarians in the Coop

“Without chicken, there will not be a banquet.”

—Chinese Proverb

For an ancient and yet nasty poultry virus, H5N1 has created a lot of pandemonium. First came

the televised bird holocausts that featured solemn men dressed in ghostly killing gear. Reports of

dying or dead peasants soon followed. Politicians then blamed the viral trade killer on wild

migratory birds and ordered the draining of wetlands. After white coats at the World Health

Organization in Geneva added up the dead (nearly 100 poor people), virologists started to fret about another global influenza pandemic like the viral blizzard of 1918 that dispatched 50 million people. Meanwhile Chinese authorities did what the modern Chinese do best: They issued a flock of denials about the pandemic’s authentic birthplace, Guangdong.

An eerie Hitchcockian spell soon infected Internet blogs, public health officials, and poultry lovers everywhere. The hullabaloo trailed H5N1 wherever it popped up. In Egypt fearful peasants culled their chicken flocks, whether infected or not, and dumped their primary source of protein into the Nile. When dead birds fell from the sky in northern Iraq, people ran away as though nearly struck by God. The wary German government dispatched Tornado reconnaissance jets to locate hundreds of swans felled by flu along the shores of the Baltic Sea. The fastidious Dutch declared an emergency and moved all their poultry indoors. The French, whose proud national symbol remains a rooster, suffered an identity crisis. The Hong Kong authorities warned bird- loving citizens not to kiss their feathered pets. And governments everywhere started to publish pandemic preparation plans by the dozen.

But before avian influenza set the global village on fire with a rare gallinaceous fever, Mark Dekich met and did battle with the invader in a crowded Saudi Arabian chicken factory. The year was 1998. At the time Dekich’s exploits in the oil kingdom didn’t get much notice. In fact, Dekich went to criminal lengths to keep them quiet. The global poultry industry doesn’t really like talking about its factory-made infections. But Dekich’s exceptional story partly explains how a plain avian virus became a feared global menace and eventually worked up a hurricane of human hysteria.

Eight years ago Dekich held a good job at Fakieh Poultry Farms, one of the biggest chicken producers in the oil-rich kingdom. When not taking care of Fakieh’s birds with mass vaccinations and medicated feeds, the Georgia-born bird doctor spoke at symposiums on factory chicken diseases and even testified for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on key livestock matters. As a longtime poultry expert, Dekich knew that “fowl plague” comes in two forms: mild maimers that clog up chicken lungs, and strains of “highly pathogenic avian influenza” that kill. Any maimer can morph into a killer and clean out a factory of 40,000 birds with 100 percent mortality in hours.

A pathogenic strain works with a certain demonic precision: It simply overwhelms meat birds the same way Ebola melts Africans. The invader commandeers every organ and tissue of a bird, from the top of its comb to the tips of its ammonia-burned feet. The broilers bleed from their eyes, beaks, and anuses. One moment they are pecking away; the next they fall over dead. In the end they just “melt out,” resembling rubber caricatures of themselves. An outbreak not only eats up profits and creates unsightly piles of dead animals but generally shuts down a bird factory for weeks.

Like most people working in the global chicken trade, Dekich had nervously watched a viral outbreak crash and burn hundreds of thousands of birds in Hong Kong’s high-density poultry farms and live markets in the spring and fall of 1997. The sudden plague wiped out between 70 and 100 percent of the ducks, chickens, and quails it encountered. Then a three-year-old boy played with a chick at a day-care center and came down with an unusual bout of the flu. The disease shut down his lungs, kidneys, and liver. He died six days later in a coma. When virologists identified this viral citizen as H5N1, they started to pace at night: The strain had never assaulted or outgunned the human immune system before. H5N1 was supposed to be a stable avian predator, not a pioneering human one.

Six months later the deadly virus emerged again after weeks of wet weather. It immediately went on another chicken-killing spree. After five more children and adults got caught in the viral crossfire and died of overwhelmed immune systems, Hong Kong’s public health authorities took draconian measures. They sent out four-person teams to kill 1.6 million birds in the city’s farms and “wet” markets, the bustling clusters of stalls where vendors of live birds and fish clean the streets by pouring buckets of water down them. The avian assassination squads broke necks, cut throats, and gassed birds in bags. When the masked killers came home at night, they did not kiss their wives or touch their children.

As Hong Kong battled the outbreak, Dekich penned a prescient paper for the journal Poultry Science. After 30 years of breeding “big, economical and fast growing chickens,” wrote Dekich, the profitable commercial broiler business faced a number of health risks, including unreliable vaccines and “increased poultry house density.” Giving chickens less space than a page of typing paper to live on just heightened the “potential for spread of endemic diseases through large naïve populations of birds.” A “naïve” bird is an immunocompromised animal with no natural disease resistance.

Shortly after penning the warning, Dekich learned that some of his broilers at Fakieh’s factories were keeling over from a mild strain of avian influenza. It wasn’t H5N1 but H9N2, a weaker and rapidly evolving cousin that had started to rattle chicken cages in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in the 1990s. H9N2 (every avian virus has what Mike Davis, author of The Monster at Our Door, quaintly calls a “genetic license-plate number”) sickened factory chickens with lung problems and outright killed birds burdened by other infections. Because virologists then regarded H9N2 as one of the world’s most abundant bird viruses, they placed it “high on the list with pandemic potential” for humans. Given the growing hysteria about H5N1 in Hong Kong, Dekich knew that any public revelation of the outbreak would result in serious investigations, trade restrictions, and multimillion-dollar losses. The same invader had already raised hell in Iran’s chicken flocks.

So Dekich did what every major factory farmer and broiler-friendly government has done since avian flu first invaded the global chicken coop: He kept the barbarian under wraps. “With the world health publicity about avian influenza, it was a priority of the company to keep confidentiality. The human epidemiological consequences can be severe if this H9N2 virus is allowed to continue to replicate and re-sort its genome (genes). Fakieh Poultry Farms must go avian influenza negative and protect that negative status,” he later wrote in one company memo.

After consulting with a well-known poultry specialist at the University of Delaware about his fluish flocks, Dekich arranged for a struggling biotech firm, Maine Biological Laboratories, to secretly produce a vaccine. Dekich then smuggled a sample of the chicken killer into the United States. MBL mislabeled $900,000 worth of its product as a vaccine for Newcastle disease (another viral menace) in order to evade detection by U.S. authorities.

Until Dekich and six employees of MBL pleaded guilty seven years later to mail fraud, virus smuggling, or making false statements to the government (among other crimes), no one knew much about the mail traffic in poultry killers or Saudi Arabia’s avian flu outbreak in 1998. Upon sentencing Dekich and his accomplices in July 2005, U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock, Jr., called the corruption “insidious, enticing and aggressive.” The judge’s verdict could easily have been applied to the global spread of avian flu.

Bird flu is now poised to sweep through humans like a viral tsunami. Most members of the world’s unhappy flu-watching fraternity now debate only the severity of the next pandemic. Will the virus heat up and kill 1 in 50 people, setting off an economic collapse, or cool down and dispatch 1 in 1,000 people, setting off a global panic attack? Or will it simply fade away, leaving citizens with nothing more than a bad case of H5N1 fatigue and governments with expensive stockpiles of antiviral drugs, like Tamiflu?

Whatever its future course, H5N1 has already changed the world forever. It has done to chickens what AIDS did to sex, and it has visited upon Asia’s poor the same kind of calamity Katrina dropped on the indigent in New Orleans. But that’s just the beginning. The invasive opportunist has endangered the world’s number two source of protein, accelerated species extinction among wild birds, impoverished more than 100 million rural families, demonized backyard chicken keepers, cost Asian taxpayers $20 billion, and added another layer of vulnerability to modern life. Like it or not, H5N1 has become another global mischief maker with a universal passport. Earl Brown, a University of Ottawa virologist, believes more viral mayhem is on the way: “Welcome to the beginning of the new normal.” The Great Chicken Pandemic, which has buried more than 200 million winged creatures, is another unadvertised by-product of globalization. Its source, pure and simple, is our gluttonous appetite for cheap, industrially produced meat. Crowded bird factories, rampant bird smuggling, bad vaccines, and duplicitous governments have all played a role in fouling the proverbial nest.

Medical professionals may not like to admit it, but avian flu is a fairly predictable man-made plague, or what scientists cryptically call a “deliberately emerging microbe.” Even the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has repeatedly concluded that avian flu owes its global reach to “the intensification and concentration of livestock production in areas of high density human populations.” H5N1, in other words, is a factory-acquired infection.

It is also a bona fide biological invader and a member of the fast-and-furious club. Anthony McMichael, a well-known Australian public health expert, has long argued that the roller-coaster pace of global trade and travel selects for troublemakers by disrupting their natural homes or ecosystems. As a result the world’s r-species, true die-hard globalists such as fungi, viruses, and bacteria, are once again looking for new homes. Unlike k-species (apes and humans), the rspecies reproduce quickly, do little parenting, and excel at spreading their numerous offspring.

Trade, travel, city making, and chicken factories smile on “these small opportunistic species,” says McMichael. Biologists just call them invaders.

Avian flu has been waiting for an opportunity to go global for a long time. This ancient virus has dwelled harmlessly in the guts of wild ducks and other migratory waders for millions of years. There it hijacks a duck’s intestinal cells to make more evolutionary anarchists and gene spreaders. Whenever the duck defecates, the viral freeloaders enter ponds and lakes where they can survive happily for months at a time. It’s telling that 10 billion virus particles can be found in a single liter or quart of water. In the scheme of things, God probably made ducks to breed and transport viruses.

Wild fowl visit ponds inhabited by domestic poultry. Here wild ducks share their viral cargo, much the way careless suburbanites share gastrointestinal trouble in hot tubs or ecotourists share measles with apes. Just a gram (0.03 ounce) of infected duck feces can infect a million chickens.

Depending on the strain of influenza that the wild fowl transmit to them, the domestic birds can gain immunity, start sneezing, or fall down dead.

As the world’s oldest pathogenic entrepreneurs, viruses are always looking for opportunities to expand their domain. This explains why influenza now comes in four major and often troublesome tribes: A primarily dwells in wild fowl but occasionally makes forays into several mammals, including horses, humans, and pigs; B, a tamer tribe, mostly dogs humans but has been found in seals; C can produce mild colds in humans and pigs; and Thogoto remains largely a tickborne virus in Asia and Africa. All the tribes can occasionally swap genes and evolve in unpredictable ways, but only A and B can author a pandemic that turns human lungs and brains into a bloody mess.

The A tribe can stir up pandemic trouble in as many as 154 genetic combinations or subtypes.

Each tribal subtype, in turn, can spawn hundreds of different strains. (Like fashion models, influenza viruses are always changing shape.) H5N1, for example, has mutated as many as 20 times already. The subtypes can be told apart by the position of two creative proteins on the surface of the avian virus: hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). Their arrangement helps to shape a virus’s ability to break and enter into a cell. All of these subtypes call birds home, but certain ones—H1, H2, and H3—stick pretty well to human lungs while others, such as H7, prefer horses. Until H5N1 popped out of Asia, scientists generally thought that no member of the A tribe could make a bad case of the flu without first swapping genes with other tribal groups or at the very least passing first through pigs, the world’s best viral mixing medium. But H5N1 surprised them.

Like most RNA viruses, the avian clan tend to be sloppy and capricious reproducers. During “viral sex” they make all sorts of rude copies and in the process create innumerable mutants. A heavy load of flu virus (say, 50,000 particles) can make up to 50,000 mutants. In a chicken factory, a strain of avian flu will quickly evolve from a benign hitchhiker into a nasty killer.

Crowds encourage the selection of deadlier and stickier forms of influenza, explains Earl Brown.

“The virus responds to its environment, and the highest yielding virus on the barn floor wins.” The winner is usually a formidable chicken killer.

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