Science in Society Archive

How to Stop Bird Flu Instead
Of the Vaccine-Antiviral Model

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho explains why the vaccine-antiviral model doesn't work and why a new paradigm is needed to provide health for all

Based on presentation at Workshop on Health and Development for 60th World Health Assembly, Maison des Associations, Rue des Savoises, Geneva, 11-12 May 2007

Some fundamental questions left out

Some fundamental questions need to be asked in any public health measure that the WHO puts in place, but appear not to have been asked: Does it work? Is it safe?

If not, what should be done instead?

We are told to prepare for the coming pandemic in bird flu by stockpiling vaccines and anti-viral drugs.

We've had twenty years of the same vaccine-antiviral model for the current AIDS pandemic, with little sign of progress. The multibillion-dollar global initiative to combat AIDS has created expensive patented drugs with very toxic side effects that poor countries cannot afford anyways, and vaccines that are ineffective at best and at worst, unsafe [1] ( Unraveling AIDS ).

The policy is not working because the root causes of the pandemic, indeed any pandemic - poverty and malnutrition - have not been addressed.

There have been serious abuses of this flawed approach that have come to light. Massive trials of both drugs and vaccines have been conducted on poor and defenceless populations in the Third World [2] ( NIH-Sponsored AIDS Drugs Tests on Mothers and Babies , SiS 27) , and even on orphans in the United States as reported in a BBC programme [3, 4] ( US Foster Children Used in AIDS Drugs Tests , Guinea Pig Kids in AIDS Drugs Trials , SiS 27) .

Are we going to commit ourselves yet again to the same model in tackling another real or imaginary global pandemic such as bird flu?

Official account conflicts with reality

Human cases of bird flu in the world are: 291 and 172 deaths as of 11 April 2007 according to WHO [5], quite modest, though the death rates are high. Notice how two countries, Vietnam and Indonesia, share 60 percent of the cases and 61 percent of the deaths. We'll come back to that later.

According to the official account, bird flu comes from birds and spread to humans, through wild birds infecting backyard chickens. But there's no evidence for that at all [6] ( Fowl Play in Bird Flu , SiS 30) . Instead, the evidence points the finger at intensive industrial poultry farms as the reservoir, breeding ground and incubator for the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, which is spread by the global trade in live poultry and poultry products. Government agencies are at pains to protect the poultry industry, so wild birds, the victims, get the blame with massive culls, while large subsidies are given away to compensate the poultry industry for lost profits and lost birds.

There was a H5N1 outbreak in an intensive turkey farm in the UK in February [7]. This killed 2 600 turkeys and 159 000 other turkeys had to be slaughtered. The prime suspect was poultry products imported from Hungary, coupled with bad hygiene in the turkey farm. Members of the UK Parliament were outraged when told two months later that the government has awarded the farm owner nearly £600 000 in compensation [8].

The official story perpetrated about bird flu just does not match up with evidence, and I looked into nearly all aspects of it [9] ( Where's the Bird Flu Pandemic? SiS 30)

Genetic analysis reveals that wild birds are not reservoirs of the bird flu virus and migratory birds in Eurasia and America do not exchange viruses. Major bird flu outbreaks begin in countries with explosive growths in intensive poultry farms, and epidemiological evidence confirms that the risks of infection is up to 32.4 times in commercial flocks as in backyard chickens. Bird flu outbreaks follow the routes of global trade in live poultry and poultry products rather than bird migration.

Dr. Sherri Tenpenny has looked even further [10] ( What's Really Behind the Bird Flu Outbreaks? SiS 32), and suggests that high death rates in human cases may be linked to dioxins from agent orange dumped in Vietnam during the Vietnam war, and from recent proliferation of paper mills in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. There's evidence that dioxin and the virus together produce the big inflammatory response known as a cytokine storm, and that's what killed so many of the patients [9].

The bird flu scare creates the need to stockpile vaccines and drugs, involving large payouts to drug companies and others [9].

Drug and vaccines may be worse than useless

Tamiflu, a neuraminidase inhibitor, is practically the only antiviral drug available. It is strongly recommended by WHO, and has been stockpiled by governments around the world in hundreds of millions of doses, very lucrative to the drug giant Roche. Roche bought the licence from a company that Donald Rumsfeld the US Defence Secretary still owns £25 m shares in, and has already made more than £ 5 m in sold shares.

Similarly, vaccine payouts totalling more than $1 billion has been made to five drug companies: Senofi, GlaxoSmithKline, MedImmune, Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics, DynPort Vaccine and Solvay Pharmaceuticals [11].

Tamiflu is not a cure and possibly worse. Japanese doctors have been prescribing it to their patients, and 18 juveniles on the drug committed suicide in 17 months [12]. Japan has banned the drug. Roche denies any link to the drug, saying that psychiatric disturbances among people taking its medication is no higher than for flu sufferers generally, and Japan has a high suicide rate in any case.

That's not the only risk with Tamiflu. Scientists point out that if it is widely used during a pandemic, its apparent resistance to biodegradation and solubility in water mean it will enter river-water from sewage treatment plants, and reach high concentrations (microgram/litre), presenting an increased risk of antiviral resistance and genetic exchange between influenza viruses in wildfowl, which could make the pandemic much worse [13]. And no one knows if it is safe for fish and fowl and wild mammals.

There are widely acknowledged reasons why flu vaccines won't work [14]. The virus changes quickly whereas the vaccine target specific strains, flu vaccination does not give permanent protection, and must be repeated annually. They are difficult to mass-produce, requiring chicken eggs and some strains won't grow at all. Worse yet, there is no evidence that vaccines against seasonal flu give any protection [15]. The most promising candidate vaccine based on killed virus from Vietnam made by GlaxoSmithKline depends on a proprietary adjuvant [16], and would cover only 5 percent of the global population if the entire production capacity of the world were used [17].

There's practically no safety record on flu vaccines [15]; some serious side effects were indicated [18], and excess mortality in the vaccinated elderly suspected [19]. Genetic engineering is being applied to make DNA and RNA vaccines with risks acknowledged by the researchers themselves [20], who have suggested how they could be overcome, though I am not sure they would solve all the problems. These include autoimmune disease, contamination with bacterial toxins, immune cross reactions with human proteins, immune tolerance, integration of the nucleic acid into the genome of cells including germ cells and transmission to the next generations, recombination with host viruses and bacteria to create new pathogens, and transfer of antibiotic resistance marker genes to bacteria. The strong promoters from viruses may trigger cancer, and lastly, liver toxicity from small interference RNAs.

Small interference RNAs or microRNAs given to mice in a gene therapy experiment resulted in 150 mice dropping dead from liver toxicity [21] ( Gene Therapy Nightmare for Mice , SiS 31) , basically because the mRNA interfered with a host of essential biological functions.

So whom can you believe? Our scientists are giving pronouncements to frighten you into accepting antiviral drugs and vaccines on the one hand, and reassuring you that it is OK to continue this global trade in intensively farmed poultry products, and yes, continue to eat chickens, no matter what [22] ( What Can You Believe About Bird Flu? SiS 30) .

There has been much scepticism over the bird flu pandemic being just around the corner, or that it is inevitable.

Bird flu pandemic unlikely except through genetic engineering to produce vaccines

It is said that the only barrier between a pandemic among birds and one among humans is if the H5N1 mutates its HA (haemaglutinin) gene to recognize the human-type cell surface marker rather than the bird type. But it turns out that humans have the bird type receptor deep in the lower respiratory tract, which is why the virus can enter those cells and cause severe pneumonia [22]. Despite that, the pandemic is unlikely because complex genetic and biological species barriers are not easy to breach, except through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering used in studying the virus and in frenzied attempts to create vaccines may be just the right measures for creating the pandemic virus.

As I have warned with regard to the huge US biodefense program to create vaccines against the most deadly pathogens: smallpox virus, ebola, etc. [23] ( No Biosecurity without Biosafety , SiS 26), laboratory researching dangerous viruses or vaccines are hotspots for disease outbreaks.

At the end of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic, lab outbreaks of SARS virus occurred in 8 months [24]. Numerous breaches of containment of disease agents have occurred in such labs in the United States over the period of ten years from 1994 to 2004 [25], involving agents such as HIV, Ebola virus, West Nile virus, glanders, plague anthrax and tularaemia.

I do not underestimate the increase possibilities of creating powerful biological weapons in the post-genomics era [26] ( GM & Bio-weapons in the post-Genomics Era , SiS 15). But the hazards from genetic engineering could be worse. The basic tools and materials for making bioweapons are the same as those used in ‘legitimate' genetic engineering applications. But while bio-weapons are made under strictly contained conditions, many dangerous experiments are being done without adequate safety precautions, and hazardous gene products are released into the environment as if they were safe. My colleagues and I have drawn attention to that in a paper published in 1998 [27] ( Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases , ISIS Scientific Publication).

Genetic engineering experiments worse than “experiments of concern”

The National Academy of Sciences report, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual Use Dilemma , published in 2003 [27] by the National Research Council Committee on Research Standards in Biotechnology, chaired by Gerald Fink, identified a list of “experiments of concern” (Box 1)

Box 1

Experiments of concern from Fink Report

  • Demonstrate how to render a vaccine ineffective
  • Confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral agents
  • Enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a nonpathogen virulent
  • Increase transmissibility of a pathogen
  • Alter the host range of a pathogen
  • Enable the evasion of diagnostic/detection modalities

Unfortunately, genetic engineering can do all of those things easily, and more, without intending to, and have been doing them for years while our regulators do nothing ( Slipping Through the Regulatory Net, Naked and Free Nucleic Acids , ISIS TWN Report) [29].

Here are some recent examples. A research team in the State University of New York at Stony Brook made the poliovirus by joining up short DNA fragments obtainable by mail order into a complete sequence that was then transcribed into the RNA polio viruses in a cell-free system containing all the necessary enzymes and cell parts. The synthetic viruses were capable of infecting cells [30].

Worse yet, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, synthesized a gene of the smallpox variola virus and use that to replace its counterpart in the vaccinia (vaccine) virus. The virus became more than 100 times more potent in inhibiting the human complement enzymes responsible for the body's innate immune defence against viral attacks [31]. And that could be why the smallpox virus is so much more virulent than the vaccinia virus.

As your know, the US has proposed to express variola genes in related pox viruses, and to insert a reporter gene (expressing green fluorescent protein) in variola itself [32].

This is the latest report of a serious infection in a woman from the vaccine virus contracted by having sex with a vaccinated soldier [33]. Since March 2007, four more cases have been identified. We don't know which smallpox vaccine has been used.

To cut a long story short, compare this list of dangerous experiments from genetic engineering (Box 2) with the list of “Experiments of concern” (Box 1) in the Fink Report.

I have reviewed this subject fully [23].

Box 2

Dangerous experiments, constructs and deliberate releases in genetic engineering

  • Creating lethal pathogens by accident, e.g., mousepox virus, ‘disarmed' tuberculosis bacterium
  • Making deadly viruses more lethal, e.g., ebola
  • Making hybrid SIV-HIV virus (for testing vaccines) that kills monkeys in weeks
  • Releasing AIDS vaccines that are effectively ‘slow bioweapons'
  • Releasing gene therapy vectors that cause leukaemia
  • Releasing antibiotic resistance genes and potentially toxic or allergenic transgene products
  • Manipulating genes associated with cancer and immune suppression on a routine basis
  • Creating cross-species viruses in cell cultures
  • Generating millions of recombinant agents in hours by genome shuffling
  • Creating huge varieties of vectors, DNA vaccines and endless species of rDNAs and rRNAs that can generate new pathogens, cause immune reactions, insertion mutations and cancers

The good news

Now, for the good news: in the case of AIDS, there's plenty of evidence not only that malnutrition can give people some symptoms of AIDS disease, such as a low CD4 cell count, and predispose people to opportunistic infections, but also that good nutrition and nutritional supplements can help delay or prevent AIDS disease, and protect against infection, as described fully in our report [1].

Vaccines create specific or acquired immunity, while natural or innate immunity is what protects us against new disease agents, no matter what they are. More and more immunologists are acknowledging that innate immunity plays a greater role in fighting disease, and that's what the right nutrition does for us.

And more specific good news: a group of scientists based in eight research institutes in US and Canada including nutritionists and atmospheric chemists, have reviewed extensive evidence suggesting that the reason influenza happens in the flu season typically after the winter solstice is because people become deficient in vitamin D through lack of sunshine on the skin [34]. The elderly are especially badly affected because they make only 25 percent as much vitamin D as a person 20 years of age. Vitamin D is a precursor of an important steroid hormone essential for the function of many immune cells that defend the body against invading disease agents, including the influenza virus.

Although they say it is premature to recommend vitamin D for either the prevention or treatment of viral respiratory infections, it is not too early to recommend health-care providers to “aggressively diagnose and adequately treat vitamins D deficiency. Those with large amounts of melanin in the skin, the obese, those who avoid the sun, and the aged may need up to 5000 IU/day.”

Some suggestions on how to tackle the threat of the bird flu pandemic, or indeed, any pandemic are presented in Box 3. These measures are much more effective and affordable, and are part of the comprehensive paradigm change we need to take us on the path towards the Alma Ata declaration of health for all.

Box 3

Some Appropriate and Affordable Strategies

  • Remove the root cause of bird flu, i.e., intensive factory farming by reducing stocking rates and substituting organic free-range practices
  • Develop and support local markets in favour of export market
  • Clean up the environment and implement the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Treaty, which came into effect in May 2004, to eliminate or reduce the release of dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants
  • Improve nutritional status of populations most at risk by eliminating hunger and poverty, ensuring adequate levels of vitamins (especially vitamin D) and other micronutrients as well as macronutrients
  • Devote much more resources into developing and revitalising traditional medicines and medical practices

Article first published 14/05/07


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