The NAFTA Flu
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.