Cases of swine flu H1N1 are now reported in Honduras, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Austria, Thailand, Israel, etc. Can’t keep up at this point.

H1N1 is making its way across the world by hierarchical diffusion. By the world’s transportation network it is bouncing down a hierarchy of cities defined by their size and economic power and their interconnectedness to Mexico City, the international city closest to the initial outbreak. It’s no coincidence that New York and San Diego were among the first cities hit. The virus is also engaged in contagious diffusion, spreading out within each new country hit.

For the most part only a few cases have been reported in countries other than Mexico. But as influenza, unlike SARS, can transmit before symptoms show, there may be no way to stop H1N1 now. New York now reports hundreds infected.

What is clear is that the more countries affected, the more likely the virus will find chinks in the world’s epidemiological armor. The new strain may develop the right epidemiological momentum once it reaches those countries whose public health infrastructures are underdeveloped or undermined by structural adjustment programs. On the other hand, that may have happened from the start. Since the early 1980s Mexico has been subjected to IMF-specified truncations in animal and health infrastructure.

Unchecked transmission in vulnerable areas increases the genetic variation with which the new H1N1 can evolve characteristics that accelerate transmission and increase virulence. In spreading over such a great geographic extent fast-evolving H1N1 also contacts an increasing variety of socioecological environments, including locale-specific combinations of prevalent transportation infrastructure, vaccine and antiviral coverage, and host genetics.

In this way, by a type of escalating demic selection, the new H1N1 can better explore its evolutionary options. A series of fit variants, each more transmissible than the next, can evolve in response to local conditions and subsequently spread. For the H5N1 subtype, until last week influenza’s superstar, the Z reassortant, the Qinghai-like strain, and the Fujian-like strain all outcompeted other local H5N1 strains to emerge to regional and, for the Qinghai-like strain, continental dominance. The more genetic and physical variation produced across geographic space, the more compressed the time until the most transmissible infection evolves. H1N1 is likely fine-tuning itself as it spreads.

H1N1’s variation may accumulate from point mutations along its genome. But genetic variation can also arise by what’s called reassortment.

Influenza’s genome is segmented. When two influenza strains infect the same host, the strains can trade segments, like card players on a Saturday night. Most resulting genomic ‘hands’ are piss poor, but every once in a while the virological equivalent of a royal flush emerges and trumps all other hands. That virus outcompetes all the others.

Early reports have identified the sources of the new H1N1’s genome as strains that have infected humans, birds and pig populations from both North America and Europe. In an important way, then, ’swine flu’ is a misnomer. This influenza is a ’swine-bird-human’ reassortant. The extraordinarily complex origins of the new influenza—across so many host types and geographic regions—is telling us something about influenza’s present ability to cross host species and bridge great spatial distances between livestock populations.

First, we know that agribusinesses are moving their companies into the Global South to take advantage of cheap labor and cheap land (something to which we will return). But companies are also engaging in sophisticated corporate strategy. Agribusinesses are spreading their entire production line across the world. For example, the Thailand-based CP Group, now the world’s fourth largest poultry producer, operates poultry facilities in Turkey, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and the US. It has feed operations across India, China, Indonesia and Vietnam. Trade in live animals is also expanding in geographic extent.

These new configurations act as a cushion against the market’s putative ability to correct corporate inefficiencies.

For instance, the CP Group operates joint-venture poultry facilities across China, producing 600 million of China’s 2.2 billion chickens annually sold. When an outbreak of bird flu occurred in a farm operated by the CP group here in the province of Heilongjiang, Japan banned poultry from China. CP factories in Thailand were able to take up the slack and increase exports to Japan. In short, the CP Group profited from an outbreak of its own making. It suffered no ill effects from its own mistakes.

There is, then, another reason why the ’swine flu’ tag fails. It detracts from an obvious point: pigs have very little to do with how influenza emerges. They didn’t organize themselves into cities of thousands of immuno-compromised pigs. They didn’t artificially select out the genetic variation that could have helped reduce the transmission rates at which the most virulent influenza strains spread. They weren’t organized into livestock ghettos alongside thousands of industrial poultry. They don’t ship themselves thousands of miles by truck, train or air. Pigs do not naturally fly.

The onus must be placed on the decisions we humans made to organize them this way. And when we say ‘we’, let’s be clear, we’re talking how agribusinesses have organized pigs and poultry.

Although considerable attention is being paid to the role of a particular company in the emergence of the new influenza, and rightfully so, we might better focus on the deregulation that allowed such porcinopolises to grow to the point that whole human communities are pushed off the land pigs now occupy.

So if we are to impart responsibility where it should lay, North America’s new influenza would be better called the NAFTA flu.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, pushed by Bill Clinton in 1993 and approved by a bipartisan Congress, reduced trade barriers across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Products could now be marketed across the three countries without levies that favored domestic industries. The agreement also allowed companies to purchase and consolidate businesses in other member countries. Granjas Carroll, the Veracruz-based company under present scrutiny for the present outbreak, is a subsidiary of U.S.-based Smithfield Foods.

NAFTA had a fundamental effect on North American agriculture, including Mexico’s hog industry. As Batres-Marquez and her colleagues reported in 2006,

Among the changes that have occurred since NAFTA, many small commercial producers have exited the industry because of their inability to both produce animals more efficiently and meet the quality standards required by their buyers. As a result of the exit of smaller producers, the scale of production has increased and the industry has become more highly integrated. This reduction in small commercial production and expansion of technologically advanced production has taken place alongside continued production using traditional backyard methods.

Batres-Marquez et al., trade boosters, go on to praise the sanitary conditions of large commercial operations at the expense of those of smallholders, but their censure misses an obvious point. Smallholders may be individually less able to control outbreaks, but how do the most virulent strains emerge in the first place? Can we blame small farmers for their failure to control pathogens that first evolved in factory farms? In short, why did the veritable zoo of newly evolved human-specific influenzas arise only with deregulation and once vertically integrated livestock spread across the globe? Is this nothing more than a coincidence?

As Mike Davis notes,

Six years ago, Science dedicated a major story (reported by the admirable Bernice Wuethrich) to evidence that “after years of stability, the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track.”

Since its identification at the beginning of the Depression, H1N1 swine flu had only drifted slightly from its original genome. Then, in 1998, all hell broke loose.

A highly pathogenic strain began to decimate sows on a factory hog farm in North Carolina, and new, more virulent versions began to appear almost yearly, including a weird variant of H1N1 that contained the internal genes of H3N2 (the other type-A flu circulating among humans).

The newly porous borders raise another question. Could the new influenza have percolated first in the United States before crossing Mexico’s border? The blame game is already underway:

Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova late Monday said no one knows where the outbreak began, and implied it may have started in the U.S.

“I think it is very risky to say, or want to say, what the point of origin or dissemination of it is, given that there had already been cases reported in southern California and Texas,” Cordova told a press conference.

Fascinating that a nationalist ethos reemerges once free trade appears implicated in a disease that could kill millions of people worldwide. The cross-border fisticuffs have the additional effect of detracting from core causes. Will the business nomenklatura who pushed NAFTA across all three countries be held to account for their decisions?

Where the housing bubble and banking collapse mark the aftermath of financial deregulation, H1N1 is only one of several pathogens that now track neoliberalism’s effects on global health.

14 Responses to “The NAFTA Flu”

  1. Mick Pikel Says:

    The first and most obvious question that pops in my mind is this. If this new H1N1 is a result of global agribusiness and expansion into the global south by northern corporations, how can you explain the 1918-1919 pandemic. Industrial nations were still raising livestock on family farms for the most part back then (small scale), although animals would be gathered in large feedlots just before slaughter.

    I agree that these pig and poultry “cities” logically encourage the emergence of better and better viruses, but the last pandemic can’t be explained that way.

    Thank you.

  2. rgwallace Says:

    That’s a great question, something I recently addressed in a previous post:

    The bottomline: The reasons for the 1918 pandemic need not be the same as those now. Pathogens have histories as much as humans.

  3. Robert:
    I very much appreciate your connecting these dots for us. Can you clarify one that you touch on. You say that the hogs in these farms are “immuno-compromised”. Is that what encourages the virus to spread and mutate? Is it the proximity of so many pigs along with poultry that increases the odds of mutation? I’m assuming yes, but I would like this link clarified. No pun intended.

  4. rgwallace Says:

    Steve: You’re right, it’s both and maybe more.

    The proximity of swine promotes the transmission of the virus. The more hogs/humans/birds are infected the more genetic and phenotypic variation develops and the more flexible the outbreak is in responding to the subsequent challenges it faces: antivirals, vaccines, culling, barriers to its geographic spread, intrinsic demographic declines. The more infections, the greater the chances the virus can find enough hosts to get it through the bad times that inevitably befall any boom-and-bust pathogen such as influenza.

    So the *rate* of mutation doesn’t increase, only the accumulated diversity (because more animals are infected). On the other hand, as influenza studies in East Asia have shown, in concentrating poultry and pigs within the same regional bands, the rate of reassortment can increase.

    The proximity to which livestock are subjected also compromises immunity. A number of physiological studies have addressed the effects of type of housing on swine immune responses. The conclusion? Some can tolerate the shift to feedlots, some do not. A large modeling literature shows that there should be a threshold in a given livestock population over which enough compromised animals should promote infection. It follows that the more compromised pigs there are, the faster transmission occurs and the greater the virulence that evolves (particularly in such large populations with susceptibles aplenty).

    Diet plays another role. Livestock are bred for the greatest bulk in the shortest amount of time. They’re often fed grains for which their guts did not evolve to digest for any real duration. The conditions in which they live would kill them in short order except that they are sacrificed beforehand. Only by dint of vaccines and antibiotics are even many of the hardiest able to survive to sacrifice. Perhaps we should consider all confined livestock immuno-compromised.

    I think I just surprised myself. I’m not a vegetarian. I’m not an animal rights activist. I’m not opposed to big farming on first principles. And yet by way of my epidemiological work I’ve apparently arrived at the conclusion factory farming *as we know it* must end.

  5. Explaining the 1918 Flu Pandemic

    Saw you on DemocracyNow! and appreciate your articulation of what I believe in as well. This is the pattern of exploitation and injustice which few admit.

    I recently happened to have found this old article explaining the 1918 flu pandemic. I’ve shared it around because I read local comments in the Dallas paper that as usual sound racist and xenophobic; never assuming that the US could be the originating source of wrong.

    1918 flu pandemic originated in pigs, study finds

    WASHINGTON (AP) – The 1918 influenza virus that killed more than 20 million people worldwide originated from American pigs and is unlike any other known flu bug, say researchers. They warn that it could strike again.

    Using lung tissue taken at autopsy 79 years ago from an Army private killed by the flu, scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology made a genetic analysis of the virus and concluded it is unique, though closely related to the ”swine” flu.

    ”This is the first time that anyone has gotten a look at this virus which killed millions of people in one year, making it the worst infectious disease episode ever,” said Dr. Jeffery K. Taubenberger, leader of the Armed Forces Institute team. ”It does not match any virus that has been found since.”

    Although the disease that caused the worldwide epidemic was called ”Spanish flu,” the virus apparently is a mutation that evolved in American pigs and was spread around the globe by U.S. troops mobilized for World War I, said Taubenberger.

    The Army private whose tissue was analyzed contracted the flu at Fort Jackson, S.C. For that reason, Taubenberger and his colleagues suggest in the journal Science that the virus be known as Influenza A/South Carolina.

    Science is publishing the study today.

    Army doctors in 1918 conducted autopsies on some of the 43,000 servicemen killed by the flu and preserved some specimens in formaldehyde and wax.

    Taubenberger said his team sorted through 30 specimens before finding enough virus in the private’s lung tissue to partially sequence the genes for hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, two key proteins in flu virus.

    ”The hemagglutinin gene matches closest to swine influenza viruses, showing that this virus came into humans from pigs,” said Taubenberger.

    The finding supports a widespread theory that flu viruses from swine are the most virulent for humans.

    Most experts believe that flu viruses reside harmlessly in birds, where they are genetically stable. Occasionally, a virus from birds will infect pigs. The swine immune system attacks the virus, forcing it to change genetically to survive. The result is a new virus. When this new bug is spread to humans, it can be devastating, said Taubenberger.

    Two other flu viruses spread all over the world since 1918 – Asian flu in 1957 and the Hong Kong flu in 1968 – and both mutated in pigs.

    03/20/97 10:59 PM
    © 1997 Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Some material ©1997 The Associated Press

  6. Follow-up to 1918 flu pandemic comment.

    I forgot to mention, I think this Smithfield Pig Farms is also the company cited for animal abuse. Figures. And oddly enough the pig farms are from both Carolina states.

  7. Hi There

    What do you think of the theory that swine flu is actually a man-made flu created by the military?

  8. Hi Professor Wallace,

    I heard you on Democracy Now! this morning and I appreciated your ability to discuss the “why” of this flu situation. This was the first time I heard the connection between NAFTA and the sickly “pig cities.”

    You said you are neither a vegetarian nor an animals rights activist (neither am I), but is it time for people to stop eating industrially-processed meat (the only kind most of us can afford)? Even if the flu isn’t spread through the meat (?), these sick animals must be bad for us…


  9. Robert:
    I’m going through a major rethinking on this, thanks to you and the recent Mother Jones discussing meat and the carbon footprint. I’m working on a cartoon that will try to connect these elements. I’ll post it to you when it’s done. Many thanks for letting this knowledge go, er, viral. Here’s hoping we get smarter faster.
    Steve Brodner

  10. Doug Nesbitt Says:

    Could not the rapid spread and severity of the 1918 influenza also be a product of the war? Domestic populations, particularly in Europe, were, at best, under tight rationing, at worst facing widespread starvation, especially in central Europe. And large-scale movements of people associated with the war, whether troops or refugees, would have only helped this spread even more rapidly.

  11. You know, we could stop free trade with Mexico. Why send our money over the borders to them, anywho? All they have is diseased, poor-quality crap that’s going to kill our people, and they just come over our borders anyways. Let’s move the Army to the border until we can get enough Border Patrol to make sure that no Mexican products and no sick Mexicans get here without being checked by our guards for health and legal status.

    Besides, we ought to be doing more to reign in agribusiness. Sure, small farms may make less food and therefore raise food prices for the poor, and sure, Mexicans may have to pay more for food because they have to buy it from local peasants instead of American corporations, but it’s worth it in the name of localism and health, right?

    Screw big farms. They managed to create a disease that has killed 160 people in Mexico already! That’s almost a fourth as many Mexicans as are estimated to have been murdered since the epidemic began!


    This pandemic sucks, and it is tragic that it broke out. But there were three influenza epidemics last century before the rise of agribusiness and free trade in the hemisphere that killed millions of people. Our prayers and help should be pouring out the people suffering, and we all need to be extremely careful not to spread the disease any further.

    But to blame NAFTA and call for the repeal of free trade would do tremendous damage to the welfare of people both here and in our nearest neighbor to the South. This particular epidemic started in Mexico; the next one could be here. We don’t want our people and goods to be rejected around the world should an unfortunate health problem arise here, and we certainly wouldn’t want to face protectionist measures against us as a result of a terrible natural phenomenon. Mexicans need all the food and business they can get right now. Free trade is the best way to ensure that they get as much as possible.

    The Socialist Worker may hate it, but the rise of agribusiness has helped to feed more humans worldwide now than at any other point since the rise of the Industrial Era. There are problems, to be sure, and some reforms are needed to promote humane meat production, sustainability, and better health, too.

    But protectionism is not a part of that reform, and neither is blaming agribusiness for what is ultimately a tragic and unpreventable mutation.

  12. Everyone knows pigs are fed antibiotics. Are they fed antivirals?

  13. sebastian Says:

    Mick Pikel (April 29th 2009) tries to protect Agribusiness from blame by “logic” he argues:-
    “The first and most obvious question that pops in my mind is this. If this new H1N1 is a result of global agribusiness and expansion into the global south by northern corporations, how can you explain the 1918-1919 pandemic….family farms for the most part back then…” This sounds reasonable, job done!
    If we check WW1 archives we will find there was a massive (even by Agribusiness standards) livestock producing facility in the war mud of northern France (chicken and pork for the troops). it was unfortunately near to field hospitals where the first victims of Spanish flu were mysteriously infected?
    By 1918 livestock production here had reached industrial proportions. Who knows which way the infections spread/mutated/re-infected?
    We should be looking for the parallels, not using fallacious arguments to cover up possibilities
    They did not know then what the cause was. We do, we have no excuse, and there should be no cover up to protect agribusiness.
    The risk? Anyone of us could become fatally infected

  14. rgwallace Says:

    Sebastian, I think Mick’s question is a good one and honestly offered. On the other hand, the best way to respond to Matt’s neoliberal apologia, which repeats Mick’s point, may be to avoid accepting his premises.

    Let’s leave aside Matt’s attempts to 1) minimize a pandemic of agricultural origins as an “unfortunate health problem”, 2) pawn off the pandemic onto nature alone and 3) frame multinational land grabs as good for rural Mexicans. His efforts refute themselves.

    The more intriguing fallacy is that if the livestock industry didn’t exist during the 1918 pandemic, livestock intensification isn’t to blame for the latest pandemic. Something else must account for influenza’s recurrence.

    What the argument misses is that pathogens have as much their own histories as humans do. They adapt to new ecological circumstances as they arise. Just because factory farms weren’t around in 1918 doesn’t mean that influenza hasn’t adapted to them now. Otherwise it’s kind of like arguing oil isn’t a cause for war today because the Romans never fought for it. We acknowledge our own historical trajectories. We should be able to acknowledge those of our pathogens.

    I address this point in more detail here and here.

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