Friday, April 15, 2005

Out for a duck

This week sees the publication of a two-page piece about Avian influenza, aka “bird flu”, which was co-authored by my colleague in Bangkok. Essentially the piece points out that bird flu is now endemic in Asia with little chance of being eliminated from the domestic flocks in the next few years. It goes on to explain that this means there is a reservoir of this virus from which something nasty, and more easily transmissible between humans, could emerge.

In some rich countries governments are hoping to provide a first line of defence against any consequent outbreak of human influenza with the antiviral drug Tamiflu. They are then hoping that work underway now on a vaccine will enable them to gear up production rapidly if, and when, a human influenza pandemic emerges from the avian influenza. But even at current rates of antiviral production, all the countries that want Tamiflu will not see their orders filled for a couple of years. I get the strong impression from the World Health Organisation that it feels like it is having to chivvy governments and companies along in order to get this basic vaccine development done. And I wonder if I detect some degree of frustration at the lack of progress?

In the event of a human influenza pandemic, how poor countries will tackle the problem, when they have no facilities for making vaccines even if the recipe is known, is entirely unclear. Should a pandemic emerge, countries with the facilities to produce vaccines would service the needs of their own population first.These are the rich nations.

Of course everyone wants to make sure that their own country is served first, but I wonder whether global stockpiling of vaccines and anti-retrovirals might be an idea as well, so that these could be focused on areas where epidemics break out—in the hope of preventing a pandemic (a global outbreak). SARS was prevented from spreading worldwide by stamping it out in a very careful matter. On the other hand, of course human influenza is a different matter, and much more easily transmitted.

Given that this is not a predictable event, it is really tough to come up with answers. As the Asian tsunami showed the solutions seem so obvious after the event.

The spread of bird flu in Asia
Bird flu is now endemic in Asia. This is frightening for everyone
Apr 14th 2005

Finally, a short little item from the week previously about a bioprospecting operation out in Panama. This one requires a subscription.

Finding medicines in odd places
Searching for drugs in a tropical country
Apr 7th 2005

Saturday, April 02, 2005

One-third of paradise and other stories

It has been a busy time in the last month or so. Two big pieces published in that time that are outside of the Economist subscription wall. The best, I think, is one reporting on a meeting in Washington where there was a discussion about how much of the fabled Iraqi marshlands could be restored. The scientists reckon this is about 30%, the article, though, raises some issues about the actual practicality of achieving this.

One-third of paradise
Feb 24th 2005 | WASHINGTON, DC
Can southern Iraq's marshes be restored?

The second story is a little bit more arcane but a fascinating one if you are at all interested in the saga of America's space programme. It highlights an odd bit of American non-proliferation legislation that will prevent the US buying Russian Soyuz rockets, the article argues that it could have profound implications for the future of the space programme.

No plan B for outer space
Mar 10th 2005 America's plans for humans to explore space may cause it to relax its laws on weapons proliferation

Another space story, this one behind the subscription wall. A young researcher in the US has been analysing pictures from the Hubble telescope and argues in her PhD thesis that the images owe rather more to artistic license than those behind the pictures let on. The piece goes on to say that it is the popularity of images from Hubble that have given the instrument such widescale support, and why there is such a fight on to preserve it. Many of the images go through a lot of processing in order for them to look like the amazing polished pictures we see, and some artefacts (i.e. things that are not there) are left in the picture for effect. This may not matter, but it isn't science. What I didn't get the space to mention in the piece, but is well known, is that the Hubble Archive Project-the team that creates these pictures-actually has a tiny amount of dedicated telescope time in order to take the pictures. This has been slightly controversial because a telescope that was designed and built for science is being used to take pretty pictures. This tiny diversion of resources is finally paying off as even the politicians join the fight to save Hubble.

Heavenly light
Feb 24th 2005 | WASHINGTON, DC People are too attached to Hubble's pictures to let the space telescope go

This is a little round up of the Millennium Ecosystem Report, an accurate but slightly depressing global view of the state of the planet's ecosystem services. A forest, a grassland, a wetland, a pond are all examples of ecosystems. A byproduct of the species that live in them are a number of services, such as water filtration and pollination of crops. Basically a lot of stuff we get from nature for free. The good news is that it is becoming increasingly clear that these services are something that we depend on and that there is quite a lot we can do to improve their status. Subscribers only.

Habitats for humanity
Mar 31st 2005 A new report suggests that humanity is stretching its natural assets

Finally, a little piece that tries to clear up confusion about whether or not life on Mars has been discovered. The short answer is that it hasn't, although several reports have suggested an announcement is imminent. Subscribers only.

Life on Mars!!! (Not)
Mar 3rd 2005 Martians, or the lack of them, sow discord on Earth