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Oct 20, 2005
Bird Flu: the scare and some sense

Modern world’s first pandemic was the HIV/Aids. If you do not hear scare headlines too often now, it is because drugs have been discovered that control, if not cure the disease. And India played a part in making the drugs affordable. Dr Yusuf Hamied of Cipla led the battle to reduce the cost of Anti Retro Viral [ARV] drugs therapy. That the over 80% reduction that Cipla has achieved is still too high for many of the afflicted poor is another story. The point is whether drug company interests in times of scary diseases queers the pitch for common people. In the current Bird Flu thread of news, for example?

“Bird flu could kill 150 million people,” headlines the BBC quoting Dr David Nabarro, a consultant to WHO. Rattled, WHO says, “I don’t think you will hear Dr Nabarro say the same sort of thing again.” Well, Dr Nabarro says the “same sort of thing” again with some strange logic thrown in: “My reason for giving the higher figure is simply that I want to be sure that when this next flu pandemic does come along, that we are prepared for the worst as well as for the mildest.” So the numbers may not happen but are broadcast to alert [-scare?] people. An Indian glossy magazine stares at you from supermarket news stands: “50 million will die: Is India ready?” is the line of the cover story. Paraphrasing Nabarro, it can well claim it was only trying to increase its sales.

Roche, which holds world-wide patents for Tamiflu, the only known drug that can control the flu, has just reported a 17% increase in sales in the current quarter. “The firm is now producing Tamiflu as fast as it can after the World Health Organization (WHO) advised countries to stockpile supplies to help combat a potential bird flu pandemic,” says the BBC. So the scare industry is succeeding.

Let’s be clear on one thing: Bird Flu threat is real and serious. But we need to delve deeper to understand the size and shape of the threat. Of the 15 varieties of flu that affect fowl, the strain H5N1 is currently causing the most alarm. But it is currently a threat to only fowl. It is feared it can hop on humans; that hasn’t happened yet. And when it does and becomes transferable between humans, yes, it can become a serious threat. Tamiflu can contain it in an infected human and give his body a chance to recover but no more. It is no cure and there is no vaccine yet.

India is alive to the threat. Dr Hamied of Cipla says his scientists have cracked the Tamiflu and have learnt how to make a generic version of it. He mocks the claim that it can not be easily manufactured. It currently costs Rs.300 a shot. The New York Times quotes Hamied as saying he would sell it “at a humanitarian price”. He expects governments faced with a pandemic will revoke patents. Reading the reality correctly Roche, has begun talks to license manufacturing rights to others.

Is an abundant supply of Tamiflu [’oseltamvir’, generically] enough? It is not. For one it is not a cure. For another the virus can mutate easily and often. So what happens when we face the predicted apocalypse? 

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