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    • The Problem With Neoliberal “It’s Never Been Better” Triumphalism
      Saying that humanity is currently the best off it has ever been (a dubious proposition in any case) is like saying “I’ve never been warmer” as you burn down your house. People like Pinker have been trotting out stats to claim that we’ve never been better off. Those stats are questionable, based on a definition […]
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Stupid and Irresponsible ZMapp Conspiracy Theories

I’ve written a couple of times about ZMapp, the monoclonal antibody treatment for ebola infection.  Short summary: ZMapp is a cocktail of three monoclonal antibodies, in other words, human proteins, that were genetically engineered to grow in tobacco plants.  Yes, it sounds like FrankenPharma but it’s perfectly normal to do it this way.  ZMapp is produced by company in San Diego.  In it’s PR blurb from January of this year, the company producing it, known as Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, indicated that they had tested ZMapp in 7 primates, 4 of which died.  If you are assuming that all primates will die of ebola, that’s not too bad but in the current outbreak, the lethality is about 60% so this result is nothing to write home about. (note that the in the Business Insider article linked below, the company claims to have improved their success rate in primates but there’s still no proof that it works in humans.)  In other words, the public is grasping at this very early research as if it were the holy grail and it’s not.  The best thing about ZMapp is that it draws attention to the fact that our research for infectious diseases is woefully underfunded.

In any case, Mapp is all out of ZMapp.  Business Insider has some info about what’s going on, which gems nicely with what I’ve been saying:

And scientists acknowledge that despite the new efforts, they may not be able to produce more than a few hundred treatment courses by early next spring. That will be far behind the international demand and will confront officials with life-and-death challenges of rationing and priorities.

“The biology just doesn’t allow you to do it tomorrow,” Alan Magill, a programme director at the Gates Foundation which is helping to organise ZMapp development, told The New York Times .

[…]

The doses with which the US aid workers were treated were manufactured from biologically-engineered tobacco leaves grown at a facility in Kentucky, but it only has extremely limited production capacity.

Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services are now in advanced talks with a Texas company that could produce the drug in millions of tobacco plants.

The New York Times also reported that the US government and two of the world’s biggest charities — the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust – are in talks to arrange for production of ZMapp in animal cells. That is a more conventional production method in the biotechnology industry and could allow for greater overall production, but the initial stages of development will take longer. “We’re going with multiple manufacturers,” a federal official said,

BusinessWeek has reported on the delays in federal bureaucracy that held up research of the drug for up to four years.

“That’s why we don’t have an Ebola countermeasure,” said Robert Kadlec, a consultant and public health physician who held high-level posts in biodefence in the Bush administration. “We failed to invest enough dollars to have it mature.”

Part of that failure to invest might have something to do with Republican assholes writing Op/Eds in the NYTimes claiming that you’re washed up as a scientist after the age of 36 , which is about 4 years after you finish your last starvation diet salaried post-doc.  After that age, you don’t deserve the limited funding from NIH grants as some young whippersnapper who has just started his career (and has about 4 years to make his name in the world before it’s all over).  Funny, I started feeling my mental cheerios about two years before I was laid off.  Whatever.  Ahhh, Republicans, always expecting to get some new major breakthrough from hard working intelligent people without spending any money at all.  Typical. I’m going to address that idiotic Op/Ed at a later time, once my blood pressure has returned to normal.

Like I said yesterday, if production of ZMapp is really that crucial, the government or the Gates Foundation can hire a couple thousand currently unemployed, laid off American pharma researchers who used to do protein production.  Or they can let us just sit on our asses while Rome burns.  Their choice.

In the meantime, I’ve read a post on another blog that suggests that there is a new conspiracy theory about the availability of Zmapp.  According to this theory, the Dallas ebola patient, Thomas Duncan, is not getting Zmapp not because Mapp ran out of supply.  No, he’s not getting it because he’s black.  In fact, there’s discrimination going on and that’s why black people won’t be getting it.

uh-huh

That’s ridiculous and stupid and anyone who thinks that or spreads that rumor has not been paying attention to the logistics of producing this cocktail of human proteins in tobacco plants.

To the contrary, I would go so far as to say that the only person in the United States who probably has a stash of ZMapp for his own personal use is a black man.   In fact, the White House physicians and Surgeon General wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t corner the market on whatever was left for the president’s exclusive use.  It only makes sense.  You don’t want your president dying on you from ebola.  (This possibility is extremely remote but he does shake a lot of hands)  It’s bad optics and it’s bad for the country, assuming he can actually get ahead of this crisis and be proactive on this one thing after six years of being constantly behind the curve, too cautious and deferential to the ultra wealthy on every other crisis.

So, you know there’s that.

In general though, Americans should continue to think of ebola as a disease without a cure.  If you get it, you will have to rely on your body’s own defenses to fight it off.  So, don’t get it.  Racism has nothing to do with it.  Racism *might* have something to do with poorer people having access to insurance or health care in Texas and several other states.  But when the ZMapp is gone, you can’t make tobacco plants grow any faster, no matter who you are or how much money you’ve got.

 

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PSA on H1N1: I am going to be harsh

This morning’s New York Times has a disturbing report about the spread of the H1N1 virus.  This strain of flu is proving to be especially dangerous for pregnant women:

Dr. Schuchat expressed particular worry about pregnant women. As of late August, 100 had been hospitalized in intensive care, and 28 had died since the beginning of the outbreak in April.

“These are really upsetting numbers,” she said, urging obstetricians and midwives to advise patients to get swine flu shots as soon as they become available.

Doctors are also reporting that some parents are not planning to have their little human vectors vaccinated because these parents stupidly want their children to develop “natural immunity” and because they are afraid of the vaccination:

Confirming the centers’ anxiety that many Americans are reluctant to get swine flu shots, Consumer Reports released a poll late Wednesday showing that half of all parents surveyed said they were worried about the flu, but only 35 percent would definitely have their children vaccinated. About half were undecided, and of those, many said they feared that the vaccine was new and untested.

One worrying aspect, said Dr. John Santa, the director of health ratings at Consumer Reports, was that 69 percent of parents who were undecided or opposed to shots said they “wanted their children to build up their natural immunity.”

“Your body produces exactly the same antibodies, whether it’s from a ‘natural’ infection or from a vaccine,” Dr. Santa said. “If your child is the one that dies, you’ve paid a very high price for ‘natural’ immunity.”

Ok, this s%^& really pisses me off.   I get the most ridiculous, hysterical emails every frickin’ day from former PUMAs who really should know better, claiming that the H1N1 “pandemic” is really a global conspiracy to panic people and keep them in their place.  I will admit that when I first heard of this virus, from Obama no less, I too was skeptical.  It seemed a little too Code Orange for my taste, especially since he was getting his first taste of media pushback at the time.  But a little investigation convinced me that this is no faux terrorism alert.  The only global conspiracy that is going on is being perpetrated by the H1N1 virus itself to infect as many hosts as it can get its grubby genetic material into.

And human beings are the perfect baby virus incubators.  Little influenzas just love our warm, moist respiratory systems.  H1N1 likes our gastrointestinal tract too.  What joy!  Because once it gets into an unprotected body, where the local antibody cleanup crew has never seen them before, they get down to business and multiply like crazy and then have an orgy of genetic material swapping with each other.  Yes, YOU parents who refuse to vaccinate your precious vectors may be allowing the virus to mutate into something even more deadly.

Anyway, I can’t spend a lot of time on this because I have to get to work but here are the salient points that you should know if you can’t tell if the H1N1 virus is really serious:

1.) The H1N1 virus is serious because it is the result of antigenic shift instead of antigenic drift. Imagine the seasonal flu genetic material looks like the typical English qwerty keyboard to your body.  The seasonal flu virus can rearrange the letters and your body will adapt because it is somewhat familiar with the typography.  Now, imagine one day a new flu comes in lugging a keyboard in Cyrillic.  The body has to get used to making antibodies with a new alphabet.  This is what we’re dealing with.  The new genetic material is unlike anything your immune system has seen before.  Before your antibodies can get the hang of typing in Russian, the virus will have a perfect opportunity to overwhelm your system.  That is what happened during the 1918 flu outbreak.

2.) Pandemics mean there is more likelihood of a deadly mutation.  A global pandemic means that the virus is hanging around barnyards in third world countries like Afghanistan, mixing sheep and pig and fowl and human genetic material altogether.  And that genetic material spreads all over the world much more quickly via planes, trains and automobiles than it did in 1918.  Add to the mix the well known fact that the influenza virus is promiscuous.  It swaps its genetic material and mutates at a higher frequency than many other viruses.  It uses your body as a petrie dish.

3.) Vaccine makers aren’t going to be able to make huge profits from this bug. Nope.  They signed contracts with the government years ago during the Bush administration to provide the government with vaccine.  During pandemic flu outbreaks, it is very difficult to provide sufficient flu vaccine for everyone.  So, targetted groups get the vaccine.  For example, school children are likely targetted groups because anyone who has one in their possession knows that they are unclean and careless little beasts that cough and sneeze all over each other.  Health care workers will get it.  People with vulnerable immune systems will get it.  You and I will probably NOT get it.  I already asked when I went for my seasonal flu shot.  The companies that make the vaccines turn it over to state and federal government agencies and they decide whether you make the targetted groups list.

4.) The vaccine is as safe as a seasonal flu vaccine. Seriously.  The vaccine has undergone clinical trials for saftey and efficacy and has been approved by the FDA.  I know that back in the 70’s, there was another Swine Flu vaccine that triggered Guillaume-Barre syndrome in some participants.  And that is still a risk for people who have had Guillaume-Barre in the past.  (I’ll have to check to see if this is true for seasonal flu vaccine as well) But even with that caveat, the risk of an adverse side effect is tiny compared to the risk of getting seriously ill from H1N1 and passing that on to some other person.  People with a history of Guillaume Barre syndrome should consult their doctors to see if the risk is serious enough to be excluded.  The flu vaccine should be available to you at the end of the month.  It takes 21 days to build up full immunity to the virus.

Now, to those of you who are still convinced that this is some kind of global conspiracy to numb people into a sense of terror and passivity, I have only one thing to say: GET A GRIP!  I will be very relieved if after all of the precautionary measures we have taken that this virus turns out to be wildly overblown.  If I look like I have egg on my face next year for being such a Chicken Little, I can live with that.   (There’s still no reason to panic but you should follow the instructions of your local public health officials even if they sound restrictive.)   But it it turns out that some of you out there didn’t vaccinate your kids because you listened to the ignorant nutcases who sent you email and as a result, a lot more people got sicker than they should have, I will be very angry.

And I have your email addresses.

For more information:

The Centers for Disease Control

The World Health Organization

She’s a supergeek, supergeek, she’s supergeeky (Check this for podcasts and youtube videos describing the 1918 Influenza and how the flu virus behaves in general.  Choose your comfort level of science.)

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