Financial Post (Edmonton, Canada)
October 26, 2005


By Peter Foster

Health ministers from around the world were quarantined yesterday at a
"Bird Summit" in Ottawa as potentially lethal policy ideas threatened
to mutate out of control.

The avian flu "situation" confirms that -- thanks to the virulent
spread of the precautionary principle -- you just have to mention the
word "pandemic" and the media gets hysterical, bureaucrats start
empire building, policy-makers get stupid and -- most dangerous of all
-- governments get larcenous.

Newspapers, including the National Post, yesterday carried a half-page
ad from the CBC's The National asking "Is Canada Ready?" It carried a
photograph of a man apparently strangling a dove. The man was
obviously intended to be a doctor, apart from one detail: His nose was
outside his surgical mask. Duh.

The ad also carried the words: "Disaster strikes all over the world,
when it hits Canada will we be prepared?" But what disaster?

Word is that we could be on the point of a pandemic that would rank
with the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, which offed tens of
millions. Are we? For a start, in 1918 nobody knew what a virus was.
Nevertheless, a new strain of avian flu, H5N1, has been discovered in
birds and has led to the known infection of about 120 people in East
Asia, about half of whom have died. How significant is that?

The alleged danger is that the virus might mutate into a form that
could be spread between humans, and might then run out of control.
That's two "mights." As it stands, the only way to contract H5N1 is
apparently to do what the guy in the CBC ad is doing: getting down and
dirty with a bird. The human infection comes via contact with
excrement on feathers. Those who have caught the disease so far have
been chicken pluckers, cock-fight organizers, children with pet ducks
and others who are around when the feathers fly. Indeed, since many
millions of birds are thought to have been infected and the number of
human cases is so low, the World Health Organization has pointed out
the "species barrier" to acquisition of the virus is "substantial."
That, however, is not the impression that is being given. It's all
pandemic, all the time.

The award for Bureaucratic Alarmism-By-Extension has to go to Canada's
Integrated Threat Assessment Centre, which has produced a report
suggesting the avian flu might be used by Osama bin Laden in his
campaign of global terror. Watch out for swarthy young men in
nightshirts plucking chickens on the subway.

The Stupid Policy Award has to go to Italy, which introduced a
mandatory poultry labelling program indicating where chickens had been
raised and slaughtered. They might as well have required a skull and
crossbones to be branded on the birds. The result has been a
precipitous dive in chicken consumption. In fact, health officials
have made clear that avian flu cannot be transmitted by eating poultry
or eggs. Nevertheless, France's foie gras manufacturers, too, are now
shaking in their boots.

The most worrying, although predictable, suggestion to have emerged in
Ottawa this week is that pharmaceutical patent rights might have to be
overturned to deal with the "crisis." After all, people have to come
before Big Pharma profits.

Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh declared on Monday -- with a predatory
smirk on his face -- that there might have to be some "technological
transfer," admitting that the phrase was just a "euphemism for
loosening the patent laws." Which is a euphemism for theft.

He added "we shouldn't be judgmental if people are dying."

Thus does looting vaunt itself as ethics.

A couple of years ago, a distraught father walked into a downtown
Toronto hospital with his sick daughter and pulled out a gun to
expedite attention. Mr. Dosanjh's "compulsory licensing" policy
(another euphemism) comes into the same category.

The potential victim in this case is Swiss pharmaceutical company
Roche, developer of Tamiflu, a drug that has proved to be effective
against H5N1. (Mr. Dosanjh also supported a plan for developed
countries to share 10% of their Tamiflu stockpiles with poor
countries. Great idea, but how will Mr. Dosanjh explain it to the
hundreds of thousands of Canadians who will, as a result, be deprived
of treatment?)

If Roche was flagging in production or refusing to sub-licence the
drug, there might be cause for concern. But it isn't. Indeed, it has
already donated a significant stockpile of Tamiflu to the WHO, ramped
up production fourfold in recent months and expressed willingness to
issue further sub-licences.

Above all, as a recent Wall Street Journal editorial points out,
expropriation or the threat of expropriation -- especially when added
to hidebound bureaucracy and a predatory tort system -- means fewer
new drugs will ultimately be available. "Our political class has spent
the past 30 years driving the vaccine industry out of business with
its own virus of over-regulation, price controls, litigation and
intellectual-property abuse." And that's the really scary consequence
of this week's meeting in Ottawa.

Copyright National Post 2005

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