At last week’s NIH meeting on the ability of new viruses to hitchhike in on other animals, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates criticized the United States for “testing insanity” when it comes to preventing the spread of avian influenza (H5N1). Speaking on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates explained his frustration with delays in creating a vaccine to prevent avian flu from spreading in the world’s poultry flocks.
“If we hadn’t waited six months to catch this virus, there was a good chance it would have jumped from birds into [human] populations last year,” Gates said. “In most of the countries we work with, 90 percent of influenza-related deaths have happened recently. If there is a reliable vaccine, this would only be about 5 percent.”
Avian flu now has six distinct strains, all of which are able to infect humans. The current strain, H5N1, has killed about 430 people worldwide since 2003. That sounds like some kind of record; according to the CDC, only 42,000 Americans have died from flu-related deaths over the last 50 years. Just to put the fatality rate in perspective, with a population of 325 million, a case of avian flu a year means almost one person per month could have been killed by the virus. As Gates pointed out, “that’s like Chicago losing 10 percent of its population to heart disease.”
Despite this virus’s gruesome death toll, the United States has spent at least $1.6 billion over the last eight years on the H5N1 avian flu vaccine, and those efforts are currently in limbo. “Currently, there are no specific antiviral drugs that are good for human use for avian flu, so for the past 20 years, we’ve tried to use vaccines to protect people in an emergency,” Gates explained. “But unfortunately, over the past few years, the virus has evolved and diversified. Vaccines work, but not everywhere.”