The Other White Meat

As you already know if you’ve come within 100 meters of any radio, television set, newsstand, or computer in the past week, there’s a flu pandemic underway. My TWiV colleagues and I will be talking about it tomorrow, when we record the next episode of the show, but I want to toss out a few thoughts on the issue here as well. TWiV, by the way, will be focusing on the very interesting virology behind this story, which hasn’t gotten much coverage, so tune in to the podcast when you’re sick of hearing about border closings, travel restrictions, pork slaughters, and other completely pointless activities.

What has gotten a lot of coverage, of course, is the growing number of cases of the new H1N1 influenza. Yes, I’m calling it H1N1, not “swine flu,” because the latter term, and the politically-charged alternatives to it, are clearly incorrect at this point.

What’s also incorrect is the constant refrain that this virus contains a mixture of bird, pig, and human viral genes. We can’t really blame the 24-hour blogospheric echo chamber for repeating this error – repeating things is what our modern news system does, and the original claim came from a highly credible source. For reasons nobody seems to understand, CDC spokesperson Anne Shuchat’s 23 April press statement claimed that “the viruses contain genetic pieces from 4 different virus sources … North American swine influenza viruses, North American avian influenza viruses, human influenza viruses, and swine influenza viruses found in Asia and Europe.”

Now that the viral sequences are being released to the public, though, virologists see no trace of avian or human flu genes in them. It’s a virus reassortant of entirely swine origin, which has now made the leap to humans. Shuchat’s previous statement was simply wrong. So let’s stop repeating it, okay? Seriously. Stop.

Next, we should probably back off a bit on speculating why the fatality rate is so high in Mexico. I’m guilty of some of this myself, but the more I compare the news reports to the actual data, the more I wonder whether this observation is real. Every mainstream news story mentions how many cases and fatalities there have been, but only a few make a clear distinction between the suspected and confirmed cases. We hear about almost 200 deaths in Mexico (so far), but digging a bit further reveals that only a handful of those have been confirmed as having had H1N1 flu. Meanwhile, US authorities are being more careful about the figures they release, focusing on confirmed cases rather than suspected ones. The upshot is that news stories are often comparing suspected cases and deaths in Mexico with confirmed cases and death (1 so far) in the US. It’s apples vs. pears. Until we have solid numbers to compare apples to apples, we don’t actually know whether Mexico’s fatality rate is higher.

Finally, it’s amusing, but unsurprising, to see that the finger-pointing has already started. Mexicans are blaming their government for not acting fast enough, Americans are trying to decide who to sue, Europeans are blaming the Americans, and everyone is casting a suspicious glance at big pork producers. When a major crisis like this occurs, though, we really should be asking who benefits. In this case, I think it’s pretty clear.