Ira Flatow on Science: Faking a Bird Flu Outbreak

Health officials attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, held an exercise to simulate an outbreak of avian flu. The goal was to gauge how governments and media outlets would respond to a real-world scenario. Alex Chadwick speaks with Ira Flatow, host of Talk of the Nation Science Friday, about the lessons learned from the exercise.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Readiness for a a possible avian flu epidemic was a major topic at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Swizterland. There, international heatlh officials and corporate leaders discussed how they would handle an outbreak of the birdflu virus in humans. Ira Flatow, host of NPR's SCIENCE FRIDAY was in Davos. He's a regular Thursday contributer on DAY TO DAY. He's here was us now. Ira, welcome back. Why was the World Economic Forum so interested in bird flu?

IRA FLATOW reporting:

Well, because it's spreading, at least in birds, starting in Asia, and now moving over into Europe, and they are worried about how they're gonna prepare for a possible outbreak of avian flu, should it actually mutate, and, you know, into the human population, it's pretty dangerous.

CHADWICK: And,from what you heard in Davos, how prepared are we?

FLATOW: Well, I'd say that most of the world is really not prepared. I took part in a simulation, sort of a war game that brought all the players together. You had people representing corporations, governments, health officials in sort of a mock situation of a real pandemic. That was what we would, looking at. A real pandemic had broken out. And it was apparent from this wargame, that should the bird flu mutate and find a way to spread from person to person, most of the world's nations, including this one, are woefully unprepared to meet it head on.

CHADWICK: Can you describe the war game scenario? What happened?

FLATOW: Yeah, it was kind of interesting. People were divided into groups. You had some people playing the part of local governemt officials. In fact, you had some government officials playing government officials. In this case, were the pandemic broke out in Germany, so we made believe it was Germany. And then you had United Nations officials, or health experts were another group, and you had corporate CEO's, and the whole idea was to try to foresee the problems and solutions that would come up to fight the pandemic. And, of course, I played the role of the media. Uh.

CHADWICK: So, what did people come away with from this?

FLATOW: In this game that we had, the situation, the virus was spreading from person to person. And we found in our way game that we don't have enough vaccine to go around. There are not enough anti-viral drugs, like Tamaflu or Rulenza. We don't have detailed plans to deal with the sort of panic that might come with the news the avian flu virus has mutated.

Or the question of, how do you control the spread of the disease across borders? Individual corporations, it turned out, are actually better prepared than governments. Some of them, in fact, are already making plans, getting ready for their employees to work from home, via the internet. In fact, that's what they said. Most people should stay home. Stay in your home when the pandemic breaks out.

CHADWICK: Well, how about the role of the U.N. in this? Is this how the game ended up, everyone turned to the U.N. and said, look, it's your problem?

FLATOW: Well, it wasn't that far from that. People wanted to know what Dr. David N'Tabaro(ph), who was the U.N.'s point man and senior coordinator. He was there, busily trying to coordinate an international plan, and the idea, he said, is to try to contain an outbreak in 20 to 25 days. You wanna isolate it at the point of origin, try to keep it from spreading around the world. But to do that, you need to come up with a way of detecting and diagnosing the outbreak. You have to have doctors in the field equipped with sensitive detection kits, which don' exist yet.

You need a hotline of communications between nations, between authorities, between the media, everybody else. And the N'Tabaro believes that communications will be essential to avoiding the panic, and the spreading the disease further away, as people try to run away from wherever it's breaking out. So, things are really not working quickly enough to get ready for such a pandemic, should one break out.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of NPR's SCIENCE FRIDAY, regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY, and recent attendee at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Ira, thank you being back with us.

FLATOW: Very welcome to be back, Alex.

CHADWICK: And DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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