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    Front Page
     Nov 4, 2005
SPEAKING FREELY
Rummy's bird flu bonanza
By F William Engdahl

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

No sooner are indictments being handed down to I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff of the vice president of the United States for lies and coverup regarding information used deliberately to suppress the fact the Bush administration had no "smoking gun" to prove Saddam Hussein was building a nuclear arsenal, but a new scandal is surfacing, every bit as outrageous and ultimately, likely also criminal.

The world population is being whipped into a fear frenzy by irresponsible public health officials from the US administration to the World Health Organization (WHO) to the United States Centers for Disease Control. They all warn about the imminent danger that the bird flu virus might mutate into a malicious strain that is transmissible between humans, contaminating the human



species in pandemic proportions. Often the flu pandemic of 1918, which is said to have killed 18 million worldwide, is cited as an example of what "might" lie in store for us.

On November 1, appropriately enough the day after Halloween, President George W Bush visited the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to announce his administration's strategy for preparing for the next flu epidemic, whether from bird flu or some other strain. The plan has been a year in the making. It was no small presidential photo op. The secretaries of state, homeland security, agriculture, health and human services, transportation, and veteran affairs, as well as the director general of the World Health Organization, who flew in from Geneva for the event, were at the president's side.

Bush began his remarks with the now-obligatory scare-story from 1918: "At this moment, there is no pandemic influenza in the United States or the world. But if history is our guide, there is reason to be concerned. In the last century, our country and the world have been hit by three influenza pandemics - and viruses from birds contributed to all of them. The first, which struck in 1918, killed over half-a-million Americans and more than 20 million people across the globe ..."

He was remarkably candid about the imminent danger to the American people: "Scientists and doctors cannot tell us where or when the next pandemic will strike, or how severe it will be, but most agree: at some point, we are likely to face another pandemic. And the scientific community is increasingly concerned by a new influenza virus known as H5N1 - or avian flu ..."

He went on to stress, "At this point, we do not have evidence that a pandemic is imminent. Most of the people in Southeast Asia who got sick were handling infected birds. And while the avian flu virus has spread from Asia to Europe, there are no reports of infected birds, animals, or people in the United States. Even if the virus does eventually appear on our shores in birds, that does not mean people in our country will be infected. Avian flu is still primarily an animal disease. And as of now, unless people come into direct, sustained contact with infected birds, it is unlikely they will come down with avian flu."

Despite all this, the president called on Congress to immediately pass a new US$7.1 billion in emergency funding to prepare for that not-imminent not-pandemic danger. Now that's precaution. Prominent among his list of emergency measures was a call for Congress to appropriate another $1 billion for Tamiflu.

On October 28, the Senate passed an $8 billion emergency funding bill to address the growing avian flu panic. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, in a moment of candor during the debate on the Senate bill, told the press, "If it isn't the current H5N1 virus that leads to an influenza pandemic, at some point in our nation's future, another virus will."

If a meteorite doesn't hit Washington, DC, in the next days, someday it might ... In the meantime, taxpayer billions will have gone to a handful of pharmaceutical giants positioned to profit. None stands to reap more lucre than the Swiss-US firm, Roche Holdings of Basle.

The only medicine, we are told, which reduces the symptoms of avian flu is a drug called Tamiflu. Today Roche holds the sole license to manufacture Tamiflu. Due to the panic, the order books at Roche are filled to overflowing.

However, the real point of interest is the company in California which developed Tamiflu and gave the marketing rights for its patented discovery to Roche.

Rummy flu
Tamiflu was developed and patented in 1996 by a California biotech firm, Gilead Sciences Inc. Gilead is a NASDAQ-listed stock company which prefers to maintain a low profile in the current rush to Tamiflu. That might be because of who is tied to Gilead. In 1997, before he became Pentagon chief, Donald Rumsfeld was named chairman of the board of Gilead Sciences, where he remained until early 2001 when he became defense secretary. Rumsfeld had been on the board of Gilead since 1988, according to a 1997 company press release.

Rumsfeld holds a Gilead stake valued at between $5 million and $25 million, according to his federal financial disclosures. In the past six months, the global rush to buy Tamiflu has sent Gilead's stock from $35 to $47 - amounting to a windfall of at least $1 million for Rumsfeld. And now, with Gilead collecting royalties averaging 10% from Roche's sales of Tamiflu, he is poised to reap more gains for a flu panic his administration has done everything it can to promote.

Gilead Sciences is no small-time biotech startup. Its board today includes Bechtel Corp director and former secretary of state George Shultz (Bechtel is right up there with Halliburton in contracting to rebuild Iraq), Gordon Moore of Intel, and Viscount Etiene Davignon, a Belgian who seems to be involved in everything big and Atlanticist, whether it be Bilderberg meetings or trilateral commissions.

The Gilead model suggests a parallel to the brazen corruption of Halliburton, whose former CEO is Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney's company has so far gotten billions worth of US construction contracts in Iraq and elsewhere. And Cheney's closest political friend is Don Rumsfeld.

It's another example of what someone has called the principle of modern US corrupt special interest politics: '"Concentrate the benefits; diffuse the costs." Bush had ordered the US government to buy $2 billion worth of Tamilflu - that was before his November 1 speech calling for another $1 billion worth.

Small pox, big bucks
It appears that the defense secretary is quite an accomplished hand at getting the government to buy vaccines from companies in which he has a direct financial interest. Recall the scare just after September 11, 2001 when the Bush administration was talking loudly about the "possible" danger of Osama bin Laden (for those of you who may have forgotten who he was, he was the man who was cited as the reason the Bush administration launched its "war on terror") releasing a deadly smallpox attack that would devastate the American population.

Fortunately, the administration was equally vigilant then as it is today against bird flu pandemics. Rumsfeld at that time ordered members of the armed forces to be inoculated against smallpox, an inoculation with horrendous side effects. The package also included injection with a drug named Vistide, to treat side-effects of smallpox infection should it occur.

Vistide was also a product of Gilead Sciences, and Rumsfeld was the person who signed off on the decision to give US troops Vistide. We can be sure that the men and women of the US armed forces will be among the first this time, as well, to get Tamiflu from their ever-vigilant chief. Curious that the Washington Post doesn't investigate this prima facie conflict of interest involving the defense secretary, at a time the media seem to have discovered administration lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are finally worth reporting. Perhaps they think readers can only handle one scandal at a time.

GMO chickens come home to roost
But Tamiflu conflicts of interest are perhaps just the tip of the iceberg of the avian flu story. There is high-level biological research under way in Britain and presumably also the United States to develop a genetic engineering method to make chickens and other birds resistant to avian flu viruses.

Laurence Tiley of Cambridge University and Helen Sang of the Roslin Institute in Scotland are involved in developing "transgenic chickens" that would involve genetic material inserted into eggs to allegedly make the chickens H5N1-resistant.

Tiley told the Times of London on October 29, "Once we have regulatory approval, we believe it will only take between four and five years to breed enough chickens to replace the entire world [chicken] population." The real question in this dubious undertaking is which GMO (genetically modified organisms) giants are underwriting the research and development of GMO chickens and who will control their products. It is increasingly clear that the entire saga of avian flu is one whose dimensions are only slowly coming to light. What we can see so far is not at all pretty.

F William Engdahl is author of A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order, Pluto Press, and the soon-to-be released book, Seeds of Destruction: The Geopolitics of Gene-ocide. He can be contacted through his website.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

(Copyright 2005 F William Engdahl)





Bird flu fearsome but fickle (Nov 3, '05)


 
 



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