By DAVE LENCKUS, who has covered the insurance industry for two decades.
The scientific community continues its heated debate about the terrorism risks and health benefits of publishing avian flu research as concerns about bird flu have emerged from Vietnam and Australia. Even in the event of a flu pandemic mirroring the deadly 1918 outbreak, U.S. life and health insurers would survive a financial hit of at least a couple hundred billion dollars, and many businesses have adequate continuity plans in place, experts said.
Scientists are not warning that a pandemic is imminent, but they continually conduct research to improve their understanding of avian flu.
The World Health Organization does not even consider the deadly H5N1 strain -- which emerged in 1997 -- an increased risk to public health, since viruses continually evolve. The strain, which is most common in Asia and Africa, has been held in check by the fact it is not transmittable among humans. A person contracts it by handling or consuming infected poultry. Since 2003, 344 people of the 583 with confirmed cases of this bird flu have died, WHO reports.
In January, two people in Vietnam died within a few weeks of each after coming in contact with contaminated poultry. The victims were 18 and 26 years old. Late in the month, officials in Australia killed 24,000 ducks in an effort to halt an outbreak of a less virulent bird flu strain that has resulted in various restrictions on the country's poultry exports.
But since viruses naturally mutate, scientists are concerned that H5N1 could become contagious among humans. To understand this risk and provide scientists potentially vital public health information, researchers in the United States and the Netherlands have used ferrets -- a common model of human influenza infection -- to create H5N1 strains that are communicable among mammals. The Dutch strain is lethal, but the U.S. strain is not, according to comments by the researchers in Science magazine.
The publication, along with Nature magazine, had been set to publish bird flu studies recently. But under pressure from the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, both magazines delayed publishing the studies until they are redacted so terrorists cannot use them as blueprints for bio weapons.
In published comments, the researchers bemoan that the redactions will not derail terrorists but could make the world less safe by preventing other scientists from building on their work. The researchers and others worldwide, though, voluntarily have suspended their work involving engineered bird flu strains until the end of March to re-examine the potential benefits and risks of their research.
Meanwhile, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is examining other ways to disseminate the redacted material to scientists. In an interview, Acting Chair Paul Keim disputed that any information from the redacted material would be a significant value to scientists.
Keim predicted that the conclusions scientists could draw from the research would stimulate other research and new treatments and vaccines. "That is good," he wrote in an email.
However, "this information will not be immediately useful for their development," said Keim, who is also the division director of the Pathogen Genomics Translational Genomics Research Institute at Northern Arizona University.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the U.S. research was conducted, research compliance specialist Rebecca Moritz said that the institution's lab is secured against the engineered flu strain escaping, worker infection or criminal acts. A response plan anticipates both natural and man-made disasters and all security measures are in accordance with federal requirements, Moritz said.
"Risk for this and other types of research is never zero, but the detailed procedures and plans in place are designed to keep it to an absolute minimum," Moritz wrote in an email response.
In a pandemic comparable to the worst influenza outbreak of the past century -- the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 100 million people worldwide from 1918 to 1920 -- about 100 million U.S. citizens would be infected, estimated economist Steven N. Weisbart.
Millions would die, and life insurers would face $155 billion to $200 billion of death claims, estimated Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute.
About 10 million would require hospitalization, but
those numbers would overwhelm the hospital system and compel public officials to turn sports arenas and other large facilities into huge sick wards, he said.
The federal government initially would bear much of the cost of treating the masses but could be expected to recover from health insurers through a mechanism such as a profits tax, Weisbart said. He envisioned the tax would tap insurers for the coverage they would have provided if the sick had been able to obtain traditional care.
Weisbart said he could not estimate how large a financial hit health insurers would take, because he could not project how the government would calculate the cost of "treating people in Giants Stadium." He also said that health insurers likely would likely bear the cost of administering a vaccine if one were developed in time.
Life and health insurers would survive, Weisbart said, but added that a worse outbreak that could cripple insurers is still possible.
Since the mid-2000s, businesses have been developing continuity plans that would help them survive a crisis affecting their workforce and customers, said Carol Fox, the Cincinnati-based director of the Strategic and Enterprise Risk Practice at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.
For example, because a flu outbreak could move across the country by region, companies have plans in place to switch production to currently unaffected areas. Meanwhile, the dropoff in customer foot traffic could be addressed through the online ordering options companies have implemented.
Some businesses, though, may decide their best course is to not take any measures, Fox said. If those businesses are in the slowest part of their fiscal year, then the cost of reacting might not be worth the amount of business it would save, she said.
February 6, 2012
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