Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mystery of the Pig/ Bird / Human Flu Virus

The Material World column from the June 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Swine flu” is really a misleading term for the current pandemic, inasmuch as no single species serves as host of preference for the new virus. It does not need to mutate as it jumps from pig to human and back again. This is a fully trans-species disease.

According to the findings of Canada’s National Microbiology Lab, the genome of the new virus is a strange composite of eight segments from four old viruses, associated with two distinct varieties of swine flu (North American and Eurasian), a North American avian flu and a human flu (the H3N2 strain last seen in 1993). New Scientist calls it “an unusually mongrelised mix of genetic sequences.”

Possible sources of the virus

It is widely assumed that the virus evolved in a pig. Suspicion has come to rest on a huge fly-infested lake of pig shit on the site of a pig factory – calling these places “farms” creates quite the wrong impression – in the central Mexican province of Veracruz. The pig factory (one of 16 in the province) is owned by Granjas Carroll, which is itself half-owned by the US pork and beef conglomerate, Smithfield Farms. The idea that this particular factory is the source of the outbreak is based on the fact that a young boy living nearby is the earliest known case of infection with the virus.

This explanation is certainly plausible. Pigs are susceptible to most if not all of the main virus families, so different kinds of virus can easily accumulate inside the cells of their tissues and exchange genetic material. Pigs are therefore ideal incubators for the evolution and spead of viruses, especially when their immune systems are weakened by being crammed together in the filthy pens provided by profit-seeking agribusiness. Over the years, many experts have predicted that the outcome would be pandemics of new diseases.

Nevertheless, the evidence for this version seems far from conclusive. There may well be earlier cases elsewhere that have not been traced. Smithfield systematically obstructs all investigation into its operations, but that proves nothing: no doubt there are many things that they want to hide.

So other possibilities cannot be ruled out. It is unwarranted to assume that the virus must have originated in Mexico because conditions there are more unhygienic than in the US. The pig factories in Veracruz and those in North Carolina are owned by the same firms and run in the same way.

According to Online Journal, a “top UN scientist” believes that the virus was released, accidentally or deliberately, from a biological weapons lab, inasmuch as certain features of its highly unusual structure are suggestive of genetic engineering. A possible source is the US Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. It was from here, for instance, that someone spread anthrax germs in 2001.


When the pandemic first hit the headlines, scientists did not yet even understand the nature of the new virus and it was impossible to assess the severity of the danger. That did not deter some politicians and officials from reassuring the public and others from voicing the most alarming predictions.

To a large extent, the mixed responses can be explained in terms of divergent commercial and other interests. The reassurance is designed to avert panic and unrest, safeguard sales and exports of US and Mexican pork, protect the tourist industry and maintain business confidence. The alarmism serves the interests, above all, of the big pharmaceutical companies that produce anti-flu drugs and vaccines.

Mass vaccination is not always an effective measure against pathogens susceptible to rapid mutation. Moreover, the vaccine itself may be contaminated with viruses. Thus, last December a lab of Baxter International in Austria distributed vaccines contaminated with live avian flu virus to 18 countries. The same company has now been commissioned by the World Health Organization to develop an experimental vaccine for the new flu.

Whatever the outcome of the current pandemic, it is safe to say that it will not be the last. On the one hand, meat factories and biological weapons labs continue to generate new pathogens. On the other hand, these pathogens are increasingly drug-resistant due to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics and other malpractices. It is only a matter of time before we find ourselves helpless in face of some new and much more fatal trans-species virus or bacterium.

Preventing pandemics in socialism

Eliminating the profit motive will remove the major obstacle to the prevention of trans-species pandemics. Those responsible for food production will be able to give proper weight to environmental and public health considerations.

However, this may not suffice if socialist society were to commit itself to providing a meat-rich diet for most of the population. (Some people, of course, will not want such a diet.) Disease control may well require the abandonment of animal factories and a return to a more traditional type of farming. This is likely to reduce the supply of meat, although it will also enhance its taste and nutritional value.

Besides change in patterns of production and consumption, a shift away from reliance on air travel would help slow down the spread of new diseases and allow more time for research and countermeasures. (It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.) Work schedules might be coordinated in such a way as to give people the time they need to use and enjoy slower means of travel, interspersed as desired with participation in the life of local communities, including farming.