A Profitable Epidemic
by Silvia Ribeiro
[This article originally appeared in La Jornada on April 28, 2009: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2009/04/28/index.php?section=opinion&article=020a1pol.]
The new swine flu epidemic that threatens to spread to more regions of the world is nothing new. It is part of an overall crisis, and it stems from industrial animal farming, which is dominated by transnational companies.
In Mexico, the large poultry and pig farms have proliferated in the (dirty) wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement. One example is Carroll Farms (Granjas Carroll), which is located in Veracruz and owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest pig farming and pork processing operation in the world, with subsidiaries in North America, Europe, and China. A virulent, weeks-old epidemic of respiratory diseases that has affected 60% of the inhabitants of La Gloria was traced back to Carroll Farms in Perote, as reported in the newspaper La Jornada, based on declarations from Perote residents. For years these people have been fighting against the company’s polluting methods, and they have even been victims of repression by the authorities as a result of residents’ complaints. Carroll Farms has declared that there is no connection between the present epidemic and their operations and that their farm is not the origin of the virus. They have claimed that Perote residents have had a “common” flu, and as a result there has been no investigation into what specific virus they were actually dealing with.
In contrast, the findings of the Pew Commission panel on Industrial Farm Animal Production, published in 2008, affirm that the breeding and confinement conditions of industrial production, especially in pigs, create the perfect environment for virus recombination in various virus strains. As bird and swine flu viruses may mutate into a virus that could affect and be transmitted to humans, the danger of these flus in particular was mentioned in the report. The findings also report the many ways in which a virus can spread to faraway places, apparently without direct contact, water contamination being one of them. The bird flu outbreak should serve as an example of this. See the report in GRAIN that illustrates how the poultry industry started the bird flu (www.grain.org).
Official responses in Mexico to the present crisis, however, in addition to wasting precious days of fighting the epidemic by waiting for the U.S. to announce the outbreak of the new virus, seem to overlook the real root causes.
Sending strains of the virus for genome sequencing to scientists like Craig Venter, who has gotten rich off the privatization of research and its findings (sequencing that, by the way, had already been done by public researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia), will not solve the problem. We must understand that these outbreaks will continue as long as the production farms are allowed to continue operating as they have been.
Once the epidemic stage has been reached, it’s the transnational biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies that profit the most, due to their monopoly on vaccines and antivirals. The Mexican government has stated that it has one million doses of antigens to be used to counter the new strain of swine flu, however it was not made public at what cost these would be made available.
The only antivirals that are effective against the new virus are patented throughout most of the world and they are the property of two large pharmaceutical companies: GlaxoSmithKlein produces zanamivir, or Relenza, and Gilead Sciences holds the patent for oseltamivir, or Tamiflu, which is exclusively licensed to Roche. Glaxo and Roche are the second and fourth top pharmaceutical companies worldwide, and epidemics are their greatest business opportunities.
With the bird flu crisis these companies made hundreds of millions or billions of dollars of profit, and with the news of the new epidemic in Mexico, Gilead stock prices have risen by 3%, Roche’s by 4% and Glaxo’s by 6%. And this is only the beginning.
Another company that aims to profit from this lucrative business is Baxter. This company has requested samples of the new virus and it has announced that it could have a vaccine within 13 weeks. Baxter, which ranks 22nd among global pharmaceutical companies, had an “accident” in its Austria factory in February of this year. It sent an anti-flu product to Germany, Slovenia and the former Czech Republic that was contaminated with bird flu. According to the company, “human error and processing technicalities” were to blame and details on these errors were not made public “because they would have revealed patented processes”.
Confronting the flu epidemic alone is not enough. We are also up against profit.
Translation Mingas-FTA / Traducción Mingas-TLC