How we are breeding the next swine flu or bird flu

Swine Flu

Bernard Keane did well to summarise the recent Productivity Commission“Regulation of Agriculture” report’s chapter on animal welfare. It’s 61 pages in an 800-page report, but there were a few more relevant chapters that are crucial to understanding how agriculture is and isn’t regulated in Australia. Probably the most important is that on biosecurity, and it demonstrates how easily the Productivity Commission can be led astray.

Keane notes that the commission brings animal welfare within its remit by putting numbers on the costs and benefits to the community of changing the way factories treat animals. I use the word “factories” because well over half of the meat eaten here comes from animals you’d never see in any drive through the Australian bush, except perhaps on the back of trucks. But to economists, animal suffering is of no consequence unless consumers put a monetary value on it.

Even if you choose to play by these commission rules, there are clear costs associated with factory (and traditional) farming of animals that the Commission simply ignores. Swine flu emerged from a mix of human, pig and chicken viruses on factory farms in the US in the late 1990s. It percolated away, picking up little bits of RNA here and there, before starting to kill people en masse in 2009. RNA viruses like influenza are intrinsically less stable and more prone to mutation than DNA viruses.

Swine flu might not have been born here, but it could have been, and the next pandemic influenza may well be. The relative sizes of the US, Australian and Chinese industries mean that such diseases are more likely to emerge there than here. But we all have to pay when it hits our shores.

What’s the cost? In it’s first 12 months swine flu killed 284,000 people globally. Unlike ordinary flu, it didn’t just kill the elderly on the cusp of death anyway, but 80% of its victims were under 65 years old. So we aren’t talking about future risks of events that have never happened. These risks have a real body count. Australia has a good hospital system and did better than many countries, but this influenza still killed an estimated 300 people younger than 65.

Economists aren’t normally shy about putting a value on human deaths, but the commission fails to do so.

How did swine flu emerge? And why is this relevant to commission considerations? To answer that, you need to understand some of the kinds of processes that can yield a new disease.

Here’s a method scientists use to reliably breed killer diseases. Infect a chicken with a harmless flu virus isolated from a waterbird. The chicken’s immune system will begin to kill the viral particles. After a few days, the particles that aren’t dead are the ones that have evaded the chicken’s immune system. Kill the chicken, grind up the lungs and you have something where the virus particles are, on average, a little more dangerous than the initial population you used to infect the chicken. Use this to infect a second chicken. In the time it takes the chicken to mobilise its immune system, the virus will multiply, and after a few days, the particles that are still poor at evading the immune cells will be dead, leaving just the nastiest viral particles. Do this over and over and eventually the virus will start to kill. In one such experiment, by the 24th passage through the 24th batch of chickens, the virus had evolved into a killer that killed 100% of the last batch of chickens.

Once a virus enters a chicken or pig factory, it begins a similar kind of cycling. It may arrive with the pigs or chickens and start off harmless, but it might not stay that way. A factory farm isn’t quite as efficient as a laboratory, but it is still very good at providing excellent conditions to encourage a virus to become deadly. Crowding causes stress and stress depresses immune function. Chickens in a broiler shed live in their feces for their entire lives. One gram of droppings from a chicken infected with bird flu can contain enough virus to infect the entire shed.

As of March this year, 77 countries were infected with 13 strains of avian influenza. Perhaps the next human pandemic will come from one of these, or, more likely, from some currently benign virus that isn’t yet causing enough symptoms to be noticed. Australia has had its own outbreaks of avian influenza in 1976, 1985, 1992, 1995, 1997, and 2010 and 2012.

So the commission chapter on biosecurity is an exercise in inverted logic. The issue isn’t how do we protect factory farms from things that might infect them. These are intrinsically leaky facilities and this is a distributed problem. Distributed problems are, by their nature tough to solve. You could protect one facility with robust safeguards, or perhaps 50, but there are more than 2500 chicken sheds in Australia, each holding 40,000 birds.

The real biosecurity challenge is how to protect people from the new diseases that evolve on factory farms; these are a potent source of totally new viral strains, not simply a conduit. The environment supplies the viral raw material, that’s true, but the factory farming conditions provide the conditions to amplify pathogenicity. This is not a particularly subtle distinction, and it shouldn’t have been missed by the commission.

So how did the PC miss this? There are 34 mentions of “trespass” in the 800-page report, including sub-sections devoted entirely to this topic. In contrast, avian influenza gets two passing references and no sections. So the commission wasted a whole lot of time on a trivial issue and totally missed an issue with literally fatal consequences. Clearly, the bleating and moaning by factory farming bodies about people exposing what goes on behind closed doors has distracted the commission from the main game.

Similarly missing in action is any systematic treatment of food poisoning. It gets a single mention in relation to salmonella from eggs, but what about the 31,000 hospitalisations for food poisoning, the majority of which will have been from animal products, either directly or indirectly when infection is spread to plant materials on cutting boards, knives and the like.

There is a significant part of our health sector that is no more than a hidden subsidy for our animal industries. Again, this is perfectly capable of being analysed and costed within the PC framework, but it wasn’t. Keane highlights the excellent treatment in the commission report of the way in which the animal industries control and subvert any attempt at regulation. But the commission itself has fallen victim to the tricks of the industry in letting them set the agenda on biosecurity and waste so much time on trespass and the resulting ag-gag laws while neglecting much bigger issues.

*Geoff Russell is the author of Greenjacked: The derailing of environmental action on climate change

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