Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 2005/ 17 Tishrei 5766

Wesley Pruden

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Here's real terror, in a bird's eye | If the doom-criers are correct, as they well may be, the only thing the rest of us can do to prepare for the coming bird flu pandemic is to call a lawyer, not a doctor.

The lawyer can draw up a will, and then we should all look for a cemetery plot.

Here's a scenario more terrifying than anything from radical Islam, and the bulletins from Turkey, Romania and only yesterday from Macedonia tell of new infections of domestic chickens, ducks, and even swans. As long as the disease remains in birds, there's nothing to worry about unless you're Donald Duck or Mallard Fillmore. The strain is easily passed from bird to bird, not so easily passed from bird to human, and so far from human to human probably not at all. About 60 humans, most of them in Vietnam, have died.

It's what can happen when the virus mutates, as the flu virus always does, that terrifies virologists and certain politicians who may be beginning to pay attention. "We are ill-prepared for a flu pandemic," says Dr. Henry Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford who was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration, writing in The Washington Times. "Reserves are grossly inadequate of vaccines, drugs and hospital beds. Technological, economic and logistical obstacles abound to the best and most cost-effective intervention — a preventive vaccine."

Michael Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, and President Bush have expressed grave concerns. The president even suggests that Congress should give him the authority to use the Army to enforce quarantines of entire cities if and when the pandemic arrives in North America. Such quarantines, though they sound dramatic, won't do much if any good. By the time such quarantines are imposed a lot of us will already be dead, so lethal is this strain of flu expected to be. Ordinary flu, of the kind that strikes every winter, usually kills about 1 percent of those it lays low. The bird, or avian, flu of the kind that has already struck in Asia, where farmers live in close quarters with their barnyard animals, kills about half of the humans who have caught it. This is the chilling stuff of a Michael Crichton doomsday thriller.

If such a pandemic strikes — and "if" is the operative word, despite the dire and dour warnings — and there's no effective vaccine and there's not enough medicine to go around, we'll naturally start looking for someone to blame. We could start with the tort lawyers. Most U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers got out of the flu vaccine business because they can't afford to write off unused inventory or the liability lawsuits. The vaccines and medicines that work, though not very well, against the bird flu in humans are mostly made in Switzerland, and there's not nearly enough to go around. The governments that can afford it are stockpiling it. The U.S. government has bought some of it abroad, but not nearly enough to make a dent in a pandemic.

Tamiflu, which works something like a vaccine and is not effective once the virus gets a head start in the body, is effective only as long as the drug is taken. The pills cost about $8 each, which is about what a Scotch and water or a glass of drinkable Merlot costs in a K Street restaurant, but well beyond the budget of most of those most vulnerable to flu.

The government could order a crash effort to get a vaccine, with work to start as soon as bird flu mutates into the target strain deadly for humans, but this would require (a) recognition at the top that there's a crisis, (b) Congress to enact legislation covering pharmaceutical liability, and (c) bureaucrats with the ability and the determination to get off their widebottoms and make the necessary preparations for the pandemic. That's asking a lot from politicians, who prefer to orate after they demonstrate their talent to miscalculate.

It's entirely possible, and this is what the pols are no doubt counting on, that the scientists are wrong, that the virus will mutate into a relatively harmless strain and the Great Bird Flu Pandemic of '06 (or '07) will be remembered as a false alarm, like the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968 and the Swine flu epidemic that followed a decade later, frightening millions but killing mere thousands.

But if bird flu turns out to be the killer of the doomsday scenario, and the nation is as unprepared as the experts say it is, the party in power in Washington will be written off, and deserve to be, for decades to come. The only good news for the guilty pols is that most of us will be dead, and, except in certain precincts, no longer allowed to vote.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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