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Threat of H5N1 avian flu pandemic rises to point that business must actively consider contingency plans, part 2


Part 1

China is again failing to provide requested urgently information and samples, this time about three outbreaks among migrating wild birds in the remote western provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang where avian flu outbreaks now threaten all of previously unaffected countries of Central Asia and Russia:

In late April, Chinese authorities began to detect the widespread death of migratory birds at a nature reserve in Qinghai, an important breeding and transit point for 189 bird species. During the following weeks, Chinese officials reported that more than 6,000 waterfowl had died from bird flu, raising the prospect that the disease could spread along the long-distance migration routes to South Asia and beyond to Europe. Then, last month, China reported two more outbreaks in Xinjiang, including one on the border with Kazakhstan. Though officials said the deaths were mainly among domestic geese and ducks, they added that migratory birds had played a role in spreading the infection.

Based upon prior Chinese performance over SARS reporting, one is left unsatisfied with the Chinese response that "the infection in Xinjiang has been contained." Independent Chinese scientists that report on avian flu outbreaks are again under attack by the Agriculture Ministry while foreign researchers are quiet lest China bar them from entry. The stakes are rising as the virulence of H5N1 rises. Infected domestic flocks now die in a day rather than many.

Things are generally getting worse:

New research suggests that currently circulating strains of H5 viruses are becoming more capable of causing disease (pathogenic) for mammals than earlier H5 viruses and are becoming more widespread in birds in the region. One study found that ducks infected with H5N1 are now shedding more virus for longer periods of time without showing any symptoms of illness... other findings have documented H5 infection among pigs in China and H5 infection in felines (experimental infection in housecats in the Netherlands and isolation of H5N1 viruses from infected tigers and leopards in Thailand), suggesting that cats could host or transmit the infection. These findings are particularly worrisome in light of the fact that reassortment of avian influenza genomes is most likely to occur when these viruses demonstrate a capacity to infect multiple species, as is now the case in Asia.

In lay terms that genomic reassortment results in a variant capable of efficient human-to-human transmission, the tipping point for a pandemic:

there is little preexisting natural immunity to H5N1 infection in the human population, and an influenza pandemic could result, with high rates of illness and death... genetic sequencing of influenza A (H5N1) [show resistance to] two of the medications commonly used for treatment of influenza [leaving only] two remaining antiviral medications [effective] against currently circulating strains... mass production and availability of such a vaccine is some time off.

Panama, Argentina and Australia are planning simulation exercises to prepare for a bird flu attack in order "to evaluate their capability to respond." The answer will be nil. The US, pardon the pun, is a sitting duck. The Infectious Diseases Society of America says that "if Asia's bird flu or another strain turns into a pandemic, we'll be caught nearly empty-handed," noting that the treatment courses of anti-virals in the US stockpile "totally inadequate and unlikely to provide any meaningful benefit to our population." Current stockpiles are 1/30th to 1/60th of that required to treat healthcare workers, emergency responders, and enough of the population to quell a pandemic.

Those unable to explore alternative supply channels for their most critical path items should at least consider a 'recession plan' depending on where the disease breaks out with respect to what key items in their supply chains will be affected, e.g., components in, manufacturing, transport, finished goods out. The only reason that I want to think that an H5N1 human outbreak will not happen is that I shrink from its the consequences.

Archive Number 20050724.2144
Published Date 24-JUL-2005

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Gordon Housworth

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