Breeding Influenza: The Political Virology of Offshore Farming

What better way to medicate against a holiday’s genocidal origins and the hunger now swelling worldwide in the wake of a banker-brought recession than with a bellyful of turkey, stuffing, yams, and pumpkin pie? Despite its dark ambiguities, Thanksgiving remains my favorite American holiday. Take a breath, eat well, love your family, make time for friends, and, a few drinks later, curse God, badmouth your boss, and regroup for the descent into winter. Here in Minneapolis, dusk is approaching its solstice nadir. Five in the afternoon and pitch black.

Thanksgiving obviously reminds us too of the pathogens the livestock breeding that produces the birds most of us will be chowing on also offers. If the bone breaks your way, you might with sardonic irony wish for a way out of this and subsequent pandemics. It isn’t, of course, merely a matter of a little luck (although that would help). There are due causes for the bad things that happen, often specifically related to the decisions people in power and in the money make. I believe we can think through these fixes and with enough courage to act in the face of threats to life and fortune change the world’s course.

For now I’ll offer here what I’d like to think is something of a start. I recently published a paper in Antipode on influenza and the political virology of farming (see the abstract below). It lays out in more detail than provided so far on this blog the likely reasons for the emergence of the new ensemble of virulent influenzas. The paper also offers an albeit provisional plan to keep us from whacking ourselves with a much deadlier influenza than the presently circulating swine flu H1N1 (2009).

If you can’t access the paper through the journal’s site here, I’ll email you a copy, gratis.

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Breeding Influenza: The Political Virology of Offshore Farming

Abstract. The geographic extent, xenospecificity, and clinical course of influenza A (H5N1), the bird flu strain, suggest the virus is an excellent candidate for a pandemic infection. Much attention has been paid to the virus’s virology, pathogenesis and spread. In contrast, little effort has been aimed at identifying influenza’s social origins. In this article, I review H5N1’s phylogeographic properties, including mechanisms for its evolving virulence. The novel contribution here is the attempt to integrate these with the political economies of agribusiness and global finance. Particular effort is made to explain why H5N1 emerged in southern China in 1997. It appears the region’s reservoir of near-human-specific recombinants was subjected to a phase change in opportunity structure brought about by China’s newly liberalized economy. Influenza, 200 nm long, seems able to integrate selection pressures imposed by human production across continental distances, an integration any analysis of the virus should assimilate in turn.

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