THE OFTEN-IRASCIBLE MATOKO KUSANAGI thinks I’m exaggerating the threat from avian flu. (“My friend that’s a post-doc in biochemistry says probably we have 5 to 10 years before the virus can mutate for airborne human-to-human transmission, and that it may never happen.”)

Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to be alarmist: I’ve repeatedly tried to make the point that avian flu may not amount to anything, but that preparations for pandemics in general are a good idea. (See, just for example, this post and this one. Oh, and especially this one.) And I’ve certainly never been as, um, dramatic as the scientific journal Nature, which published a fictional journalist’s weblog reporting on the course of an avian flu epidemic.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that the assurances of a friendly post-doc in biochemistry are the end of the matter, either. The truth is, it’s impossible to predict with certainty when or if avian flu will mutate to spread easily among humans. But it’s clear that we’re not prepared for that, or similar, threats. If we wait until it’s clearly underway, it’ll be too late. Pointing that out hardly seems alarmist to me.

UPDATE: Here, by the way, is the Wall Street Journal’s avian flu newstracker. It’s free to nonsubscribers, I think. (Since I subscribe, it’s sometimes hard for me to tell.)

Meanwhile, here’s a poll. What do you think?

How big a threat is Avian flu?
It’s nothing but hype.
A distant threat, worth a little thought.
A serious, but not immediate threat.
2006 is the new 1918.

(Go straight to the results by clicking here.)

MORE: Reader Eric Kuttner emails:

“If we wait until it’s clearly underway, it’ll be too late. Pointing that out hardly seems alarmist to me.”

Uh oh! Now they’re going to say you claimed the threat was imminent, just like Bush!

Heh. I think they already did. Meanwhile, William Aronstein emails: “Any appeal to authority should be rejected in a scientific discussion. But the appeal to ‘my friend that’s a post-doc in biochemistry’ takes the cake.” I thought so, too.

Aronstein has more to say, below the fold. Click “more” to read it.

Aronstein writes:


A flu pandemic is inevitable, sooner or later. In the past century, world wide pandemics occurred in 1918-1919, 1958, and 1968.

How bad the pandemic will be depends only on the characteristics of the virus — what its attack rate will be, and what the case-fatality rate will be.

The avian flu that is now cropping up all over the world –H5N1– appears to have at least some of the characteristics that make a very big problem less than inevitable but more than remote.

If reports of human-to-human transmission are correct, it is going to happen.

Remember that one of the current avian flu hotspots is Java — where pet birds are as beloved as American pet dogs.

Remember that Java is the most important island in the most populous Muslim nation on earth.

Remember that the Hajj will take place in January, prime-time flu season. Two million pilgrims –or more– will be living cheek by jowl in communal tents. A better means for transmitting a virus from Java to the entire world could not by any stretch of the imagination be devised by any human intelligence.

All the best, and here’s hoping it doesn’t happen.

William Aronstein PhD MD
(I completed my post-doc in pharmacology & protein chemistry 20 years ago.)

I certainly hope it won’t. But I think that we need to be focusing on the kinds of issues that avian flu presents, because if it doesn’t pan out as a threat, there’s a good chance that something else will.