With our color-coded terror alert system having long been Chicken Littled to death, support for the war evaporating and President Bush’s poll numbers circling the drain, a fresh tactic of fear mongering and diversion was to be expected. Especially when the mainstream media, smarting from the sucker punch of Katrina ineptitude, began to betray flickers of journalistic integrity.
Cue the bird flu.
From the outset, the mainstream media, in lockstep with the Bush Administration, have pumped us with fear. A fowl shock and awe campaign of near daily reports – at a rate eerily on pace with news of fallen US soldiers - tell us how the H5N1 avian virus is looming, tearing through Asia and one mutation away from decimating the world’s population in a matter of days or weeks. Yet they have simultaneously withheld or glossed over information necessary to fully grasp the machinations behind this poultry pandemonium, while insufficiently covering the actual state of our country’s preparedness.
First, and potentially foremost, there’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s stake in this paranoia. From 1997 to 2001, Rumsfeld served as chairman of Gilead Sciences, the biotech company that owns the rights to Tamiflu, the drug being touted as the cure-all for this rampaging virus. Though the exact number of shares Rumsfeld owns in Gilead isn’t known, its estimated worth is somewhere between $5 million and $25 million. Since the buying frenzy for Tamiflu – marketed dutifully by the mainstream press - Gilead’s stock has jumped from $35 to $54 a share, earning the Chairman of the Bird, already one of the wealthiest members of the Administration, around $2 million.
Rumsfeld has, on record and through the services of his legal counsel in an effort to avoid accusations of insider trading, reportedly recused himself from any decisions involving a potential avian flu pandemic and Tamiflu. Though, in July, the Pentagon bought $58 million of the drug for U.S. troops and Congress is deliberating over a multi-billion dollar purchase. Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company that manufactures and markets Tamiflu, projects 2005 sales of the drug to reach $1 billion, a near 400% increase from 2004; analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate Tamiflu sales could reach $3 billion over the next two years.
Yet none of this warrants further investigation by our mainstream press. Not Rumsfeld’s highly questionable conflict of interest, nor the blatant connection between fear mongering for bird flu and the surge in Tamiflu profits. Nor the fact that bird flu mentioned daily in the same breath with Tamiflu inevitably cements - or brands - this drug’s position as the #1 bird flu panacea in the minds of consumer-conditioned Americans. It’s the same marketing technique that once convinced two-thirds of our population that Saddam orchestrated 9/11.
Making matters worse, there’s evidence Tamiflu may not be very effective in fighting an avian flu pandemic. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who’s spent decades studying pandemic flu, said governments should be preparing to cope with the pandemic instead of relying on drugs and vaccines to control it. If the H5N1 avian flu began to infect humans easily, he believes it would move too quickly for drugs and vaccines to be of much use. Additionally, we only have enough Tamiflu to treat about 2.3 million Americans right now, with another 2 million treatments arriving by the end of the year; yet, according to University of Virginia flu expert Frederick Hayden, about 90 million Americans would need the drug if a pandemic occurred and, at current capacity, it would take about 10 years to produce enough Tamiflu to treat just 20% of the world’s population.
A vaccine is also problematic. Development is a painstakingly slow process and the vaccine must match the virus to be effective. But no one can predict how, or at what rate, it will mutate. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already confirmed a patient in Vietnam infected with a Tamiflu-resistant strain. Moreover, few American drug companies still manufacture vaccines. Why? Diminished long-term profit motive – money is in the treatment, not prevention. Dr. David Fedson, an American scientist and former director of medical affairs for the French pharmaceutical company Aventis Pasteur MSD (now Sanofi Pasteur), says, “We have a toxic mixture in America of a corporate culture that is inappropriate for producing vaccines for national security, and a political culture that is unwilling to accept government responsibility for ensuring it is achieved.” The influence of this culture has also thus far permeated the international approach to preparedness: Tamiflu is being stockpiled by wealthy countries in North America and Europe rather than in the impoverished countries, like Vietnam, where an avian flu pandemic is much more likely to start. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “On present trends, most developing countries will have no access to vaccines and antiviral drugs throughout the duration of a pandemic.” Just the right mix for another Katrina, but on a world stage.
So what topped President Bush’s list of pandemic priorities and was received virtually unquestioned by our mainstream media? A call to dismantle the Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids the active duty military from undertaking law enforcement duties. Yes, nothing like a little martial law to clear up your bird flu. Our Conniver-in-Chief’s logic: “If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country? And how do you, then, enforce a quarantine?” He added, and you can feel him biting back a smirk, “And who best to be able to effect a quarantine?”
Predictably, rather than come up with an effective pandemic influenza plan, the Bush Administration seizes an opportunity to exploit this nightmare scenario by unconstitutionally expanding the powers of the military. As the Washington Post put it, “That comment - conjuring images of soldiers shooting as sick people try to cross a cordon sanitaire - could have been a scare tactic. In fact, there is no legal, let alone ethical, means of enforcing mass quarantine in this country, and flu viruses, which don’t always produce symptoms in the early stages, wouldn’t obey them if there were.” And is it a coincidence that the US military - listed separately from the civilian-only priority groups in the Bush Administration’s plan - will be first in line for Tamiflu? They will be protected, so they can police how those who are not survive. Comforting.
And who’s been tasked to protect our nation during such a calamity? Meet the next crony poised to make FEMA clown Michael Brown look competent. Stewart Simonson, Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). His qualifications? A former corporate lawyer for Amtrak, with no public health management or medical experience, he’s a known political hack whose every job since graduating from Wisconsin Law School in 1995 has been arranged by former HHS Secretary and longtime Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson. Simonson also earned points within the Administration as the inside lackey who championed Cheney’s and Libby’s efforts to convince HHS public health experts that Saddam was poised to hit the US with biological weapons.
Representative Henry Waxman, who included Simonson in a list of five “inexperienced individuals with political connections” in this Administration, cited Simonson’s July appearance before the House Government Reform Committee, where he “claimed he had sufficient funds to purchase influenza vaccine and antiviral medication for the nation. The next day his office submitted a funding request to Congress seeking an additional $150 million for flu vaccine and antiviral medication.” Whoops. Instilling more confidence, at a recent Homeland Security hearing on government response to a chemical or biological attack, Simonson said, “We’re learning as we go.”
The astounding incompetence of this Administration is matched only by their insatiable greed and tireless pursuit of more power by any means necessary. It’s a combination that has - and is fixed once again - to cost countless lives. While the Birdman of the Pentagon watches his stock soar with each new avian flu story, the mainstream media is once again driving blind.
Oh, and if bird flu doesn’t pan out for Team Bush, there’s always plague.