Dr. Jim Lowe - H1N1 as a media disaster for swine industry

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This is a special transcript of the audio SwineCast episode featuring content from the recent Carthage Vet Service annual Swine Seminar, September 1, 2009, Malcomb, Illinois, USA. Our coverage made possible by Suvaxyn from Fort Dodge.

Today's program features Dr. Jim Lowe with comments from his presentation on the novel H1N1 Swine Influenza virus, an update on where we are, and what steps you should be taking for the fall. Dr. Jim Lowe:

Jim Lowe: We pass viruses between species all the time. So the fact that we have a swine virus, or the novel H1N1 floating around in pigs, is not any big deal. We see human virus in pigs all the time. We see pig virus in people all the time.

The difference is that the virus transmitted. So it went from one person to the next, and that's really the change.

So what have we got today? We've got a human like H1N1 and H1N2 that evolved in 2003. We've got this recombinant H2N3 virus which Marie and I sorted out as some ducks that went into pigs. These kinds of things get our friends in CDC really, really excited. The point is food changes all the time. There's lots of it. It happens.

So what do we know? What happened this spring? Well what we know happened this spring is that we found a new virus on April 24th. At least it was reported in Mexico on April 24th. It was a Friday afternoon. That was a long weekend. We knew it was bad. We didn't know what was going to happen.

What we've also figured out is that we reported it out of Mexico, but it was actually probably found in California several weeks ahead of that. And better than that, we now think we have isolated maybe the index case or the first case out of Baja, California in a young girl, really from way back last fall.

So this virus has been in the human population a long time. We just didn't figure it out until last spring. Again, not completely uncommon.

OK. We've talked about the eight parts of the flu virus. The H and the N are big deals. So what happened here? This is what we would call a triple reassortant. The N gene is Eurasian or Asian. We think this is a Korean type NA gene. It's a North American like HA gene. Then we've got all these other genes, right? So we have got swine. We have got Avian. We have got human.

We call this the triple reassortant gene because this is the common virus that is there everywhere in pig viruses today, and actually in human viruses, so we have just swapped some new ones out. It goes backwards.

Is it a big deal? No. We share viruses between species almost all the time. This is a very, very common event. The uncommon part was it that it went from person to person.

What really happened is we live in a very, very different media environment today. Mexico makes this announcement. We call it swine flu because the virus kind of looks like H and N genes from swine. And we know it's been circulating in people retrospectively for a long time.

But if you are CNBC, or you are CNN, or you are MSNBC, you are Fox News, you don't have much to talk about on the weekend. "Hey, here is a new story! Hey, we can pick this up!"

Hey, if you haven't heard, Ted Kennedy died. Michael Jackson died too. It is the same phenomenon. What did we hear when Michael Jackson died? We heard about Michael Jackson for four or five straight days. That was all that was on the news. If you turned the radio on and you were driving up and down the road, that is all you heard about.

Guess what? Swine flu is a hot topic. We turned up the crank. We put the pressure on. Bingo. We have got a disaster. It wasn't a disaster. It was a really nice media disaster. I think maybe the correct name for this virus is CNN Flu.

The thing I want you to keep in the back of your head; they've reported, I don't know, 1,000 or something deaths across the world today due to this virus. We kill about 300,000 people in the world a year with run of the mill influenza virus. We kill 300,000 people a year across the world with your run of the mill seasonal influenza virus. [Editor: Dr. Lowe is referring to USA death approximations at time of talk. World wide H1N1 deaths are 3,400 at time of talk]

So what have we learned? Well I think we have learned several things, and these are kind of my key take home lessons on where we're at. One, we build, and I don't want to use the term a house of cards, but almost a house of cards built exclusively on export markets. We grew, and we grew, and we grew. We felt we could export forever. Oops! A little downturn in the economy; "Hmm. This is a good reason to protect our home market, because we really don't want any flu in here."

Again, Pork meat doesn't transport it, but when you are dealing in an export market world, there are a lot of things, and there are a lot of people in here better qualified than me to talk about that, but it is really easy to create a non-tariff trade barrier to keep meat out to protect your home market. That is clearly one of the things that happened here.

Secondly, we have our friends in Washington, and in some cases state governments, and in one case in Atlanta, which is where CDC's headquartered, that we have promoted that food is absolutely zero risk. There is no risk to food safety, right? If you watched any of the debates in Congress, they said, "we are going to have food safety legislation. We are going to protect food safety. We are going to do this."

We don't have an unsafe food supply. We have a very safe food supply. But it became a political issue. So we have a population, and our consumers and our customers are focused on the fact that, hey, food supply is no risk. "Hey, could I get this from flu? Could I get this from pigs? Could I get this from pig meat? I need to be nervous, right?" So we created a risk by having safe food that created a potential risk that nobody is willing to tolerate.

Third, and I think this is a big take home and is one of our go forward actions, we as an industry were wholly and completely unprepared to deal with this. We were unprepared from a risk management standpoint. We were totally unprepared from a media standpoint. And we were really unprepared from a government standpoint.

In these kinds of scenarios, the government has a big role. And I think Jen Greiner is in here today. But Jen and Bobby Accord in our NPPC shop in D.C. really did a Yeoman's job in going in there and working with not only CDC, but USDA to really create a situation that politically could have been terrible. There is a lot of pressure from the media to do something. And if we are in government, what is the first rule of good government? "We are from the government and we are here to help." They have a lot of pressure to do something.

And I think if we look at the response that CDC's had, we look at the response that USDA's had, we have really gotten off pretty good on this one. There has actually been a very, very logical approach. And really I think we need to give the NPPC a pat on the back. And those of you who are not doing voluntary check off, I'll put a plug in right now.

We need to contribute to that organization, guys. The political ramifications of things facing our industry today are 10X worse than the science problems. And if we are not advocates, we are in trouble. So those of you that are contributing, thank you. Those that are not, I'd strongly encourage you to think about the voluntary check off to support NPPC. They really are out carrying the ball for us, and with really efficient use of our money on kind of a shoestring budget.

And I think the final thing we have to remember on this deal is that pigs aren't a risk to people, but people are a risk to pigs. So what are our take home messages? We as an industry must learn to work in the new media atmosphere.

We tend to be technical people. We want it to be right. We want to have the answer. We want to solve the science problem. Folks, it ain't a science problem. Welfare is not a science problem. These are political issues. We have to think politically. Communicate, communicate, communicate. We as an industry have to be open. We have to communicate what we are doing. We have to advocate for ourselves, because if we don't do it, our friends on the other side will certainly take the opportunity to run us into the ground.

If you'd been in Washington D.C. in June you would have seen posters when the food safety legislation was up in every metro station, or the two main metro stations, near the capitol that said, "Stop Antibiotics."

There were four or five key messages. They were put up by the Pew Charitable Trust. You've got young staffers coming onto the hill reading those signs everyday. They can't sort anything out. It is a big deal.

And then I think the final point I have got is that we have to accept volatility. And so Mark sitting here in the front row, he is going to talk about it. But how do we manage our risk as producers and take the risk out and continue to mitigate risks with various contract mechanisms?

Very briefly, because I know I am close on time. It is not in the proceedings, but I want to give you some quick take homes on what we think the strategy going into the fall needs to be with influenza virus prevention, particularly with novel influenza virus.

One, the novel influenza virus vaccine will not be here until at least October. CDC has not made clear about when exactly it will be released because they don't know. They're not hiding anything from us. It's in testing stages at this point. They don't know whether it is going to be a one or a two dose program, et cetera. They are working through that.

The other part of the vaccine for the novel influenza virus is that currently farm workers are not high on the priority list. They're actually low on the priority list. Young people, babies, and old people are high on the priority list. And there is some argument we ought to be vaccinating all of the school kids and their parents and we would snuff any outbreak out, but that is not what is going to happen today.

So what are our recommendations? One, make sure you wash your hands. The CDC has some really good posters. I know we put them up in the clinic. I would encourage all of you employers. Put those up on the farm. Put those up in your business and make sure employees are practicing good hand hygiene, etc, to prevent spread. Fingers to mouth is where you get transmission.

Two, when the vaccine becomes available, use it in the interim. We certainly still need to encourage everybody to use seasonal flu vaccine and make sure that they've got that in place.

And thirdly, the CDC is recommending, and we are fully supporting, anybody who has influenza like illness, so fever, pneumonia, cough, et cetera, that they stay home for at least 24 hours after that fever breaks.

Ned: It is Dr. Jim Lowe speaking at the  Carthage Vet Service annual Swine Seminar, September 1, 2009, Malcomb, Illinois, USA. SwineCast coverage made possible by  Suvaxyn from Fort Dodge. SwineCast is a production of Truffle Media Networks, which is solely responsible for its content. It may not reflect the views, opinions, or positions of our sponsors. The content for SwineCast is designed with you, our listener, in mind. Thanks for hooking up today. It is always good to be with you. I am Ned Arthur and we will be talking soon.