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Connecting the Dots: Big Meat, Big Pharma, Big Vaccines and Big Pandemics

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is surely the worst in recent memory, but prehistory is full of records of plagues and pandemics.

In more modern history, we’ve seen the Asian flu pandemic of 1957, the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968 and the AIDS pandemic of 1981.

Then, a decade ago, along came H1N1, a novel flu virus hosted by pigs. H1N1 was followed in 1997 by H5N1, a bird flu virus that first surfaced  in Hong Kong.

What's different about these more recent pandemics?

They're directly linked to the “intensive confinement of animals” in factory farms, according to the Journal of Public Health Policy. 

Since the onset of COVID-19—which clearly did not originate on an industrial factory farm—experts have rightly pointed out that our industrial meat and poultry production systems are breeding grounds for future pandemics.

But what most have them haven't done, is connect the dots between Big Pharma's animal vaccines and the increased risk of pandemics.

Connecting the dots: swine flu, avian flu and pandemics

The novel H1N1, originally called swine flu, which was responsible for the 2009 – 2010 pandemic, was a new and ominous combination of five viruses––North American swine flu, North American avian flu, two swine flu viruses from in Asia and Europe and a human flu virus.

The five viruses had undergone re-assortment and swapped genes, creating a novel virus not previously identified in humans.

Not only did no one have immunity or antibodies to H1N1, but experts said humans could both give and get H1N1 from pigs. According to Nancy Cox, director of the Influenza Division at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) during the H1NI pandemic:

"Unlike the situation with birds and humans, we have a situation with pigs and humans where there's a two-way street of exchange of viruses."

Five months after its identification, H1N1 had spread to 43 countries  according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which declared it a pandemic in June 2009. Between 151,700 and 575,400 people died worldwide, according to the CDC.

In 1997, a strain of avian flu called H5N1 surfaced in Hong Kong, and for eight years had much of the world fearing a pandemic. Like H1N1, H5N1 was novel pathogen never before encountered. By 2004, H5N1 had spread to more than 50 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Though there were cases where H5N1 was "transferred from birds to humans, in settings such as farms or open markets with live animal vending," said researchers in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology, H5N1 lacked the human-to-human transmission of H1N1. But of those who got the virus, as many as 66 percent died.

During the H5N1 pandemic scare hundreds of millions of birds were inhumanely exterminated in a vain attempt to stop the disease. But new, unexposed animals introduced into the same, virus-laden environments perpetuated it. The disease remains endemic in several countries.

Moreover, bird viruses related to H5N1, such as H5N2, H5N7 and H5N8, have raged through industrial poultry farms in the U.S. since 2015, with tens of millions of birds destroyed––12 percent of U.S. egg layers and 8 percent of turkeys.

Big Food succeeded in hiding the extent of the bird flu outbreaks on industrial poultry farms in the U.S., to avoid scaring people away from eating their products. "It doesn't affect humans, just birds," they declared, even as CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations, the industry term for factory farms) operations across the country have been depopulated under the public's radar. A new U.S. bird flu outbreak in 2020 barely got a mention in the mainstream press.

Experts: ‘Widespread vaccination may actually be selecting for new viral types’

Prehistory is full of records of plagues and pandemics. But, according to the Journal of Public Health policy, today's pandemics are different, especially when it comes to flu viruses, thanks to the “intensive confinement of animals” in factory farms—and the widespread use of animal vaccines on those farms:

"For centuries, the evolution of the influenza virus had remained relatively stable. In recent years, however, the virus has undergone an evolutionary surge, with new variants emerging rapidly. The intensive confinement of animals is shown to be a major contributor to this surge. Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1, first isolated in the Guangdong Province of China in 1996, is one of the most notable pathogens to appear recently...

According to the World Organization for Animal Health of the Food and Agriculture Organization, two lessons should be learned from these prior outbreaks. First, that if LPAI [low pathogenic avian influenza] viruses are allowed to spread among farmed birds, they can eventually mutate into HPAI [highly pathogenic avian influenza] viruses; and second, that densely confining birds considerably increases their vulnerability to infectious diseases."

The crowding and stress rampant throughout industrial factory farms are only part of what has changed in modern meat production. The other big change is the extent to which food animals are medicated and vaccinated.

For example, Merck, a leader in both human and animal vaccines, markets over 30 vaccines for poultry diseases like fowl pox, turkey coryza, bursal disease, coccidiosis, laryngotracheitis, hemorrhagic enteritis, avian encephalomyelitis of course salmonella and E. coli.

Merck also markets vaccines for cattlepigs and even farmed fish.

According to an article in Science magazine, titled "Chasing the Fickle Swine Flu," vaccination is now routine in traditional animal farming.

"Another crucial change has been the recent wide-scale vaccination for swine influenza. In less than a decade, vaccination has become the norm for breeding sows."

The widespread use of vaccines has caused a whole new set of problems, according to the article:

"Today, more than half of all sows are vaccinated against both both H1N1 and H3N2 viruses, says Robyn Fleck, a veterinarian at Schering-Plough, one of the nation's three producers of swine influenza vaccine. But the vaccine is not protecting against all new strains. 'We’re seeing clinical disease in vaccinated pigs,' says Rossow [veterinary pathologist of the University of Minnesota]. Flu is also showing up in piglets thought to be protected by maternal antibodies passed on from vaccinated sows."

The big question that neither Big Food or Big Vax want the public ask is whether vaccinations are driving pandemics, especially because of the uniform immunity created by animal bio-engineering that helps them spread.

Again, according to Science magazine:

"Widespread vaccination may actually be selecting for new viral types. If vaccination develops populations with uniform immunity to certain virus genotypes, say H1N1 and H3N2, then other viral mutants would be favored. Webby [Richard Webby, a molecular virologist] suggests that the combination of avian polymerase genes generating errors in the genetic sequence and immunologic pressure from vaccination may be selecting for unique variants...

Schering-Plough veterinarian Terri Wasmoen acknowledges that vaccines 'may be pressuring change.' But she also notes that larger hog confinement operations and more shipping from state to state may play a role."

How did H1N1 really start?

Suspicions continue to circulate about the origins of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. In 2009, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives wrote that "one potential source of the original outbreak—factory swine farming in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—has received comparatively little attention by public health officials."

Gregory Gray, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, notes the inherent risks in CAFOs:

"When respiratory viruses get into these confinement facilities, they have continual opportunity to replicate, mutate, reassort, and recombine into novel strains...The best surrogates we can find in the human population are prisons, military bases, ships, or schools."

Unlike such human congregate facilities where a virus will often "burn out," said Gray, in CAFOs, because there is a continual introduction of new animals, "there’s a much greater potential for the viruses to spread and become endemic."

In fact, when H1N1 first surfaced, in Mexico near the town of La Gloria in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a cluster of CAFOs owned by the Mexican meat giant Granjas Carroll and partially owned by Smithfield Foods immediately came under suspicion.

Mexican government officials were quick to deny any links.

According to GRAIN, a small international non-profit organization supporting small farmers and biodiversity-based community-controlled food systems, there were additional questions about the H1N1 virus' origin in Mexico:

"While it has not been widely reported, the region around the community of La Gloria is also home to many large poultry farms...in September 2008, there was an outbreak of bird flu among poultry in the region. At the time, veterinary authorities assured the public that it was only a local incidence of a low-pathogenic strain affecting backyard birds.

But we now know, thanks to a disclosure made by Marco Antonio Núñez López, the President of the Environmental Commission of the State of Veracruz, that there was also an avian flu outbreak on a factory farm about 50 kilometres from La Gloria owned by Mexico's largest poultry company, Granjas Bachoco, that was not revealed because of fears of what it might mean for Mexico's export markets."

According to Grain, scientists from the National Institutes of Health warn that locating swine CAFOs next to avian CAFOs "could further promote the evolution of the next pandemic."

The centralized nature of the CAFO industry ensures that "the disease gets carried far and wide, whether by feces, feed, water or even the boots of workers," added Grain.

Residents of La Gloria, however, had no luck in getting authorities to investigate the "genetic cocktail of pig, bird and human influenza," lurking at the nearby Granjas Carroll operation. Authorities even accused the residents of spreading the disease through the use home remedies wrote Grain.

Such corporate cover-ups are commonplace, according to Grain:

"It is not the first time and it will not be the last time that corporate farms conceal disease outbreaks and put people’s lives at risk. It is the nature of their business...in Romania, Smithfield refused to let local authorities enter its pig farms after residents complained of the stench coming from hundreds of dead corpses of pigs left rotting for days at the farms...Eventually, it emerged that Smithfield had been concealing a major outbreak of classical swine fever on its Romanian farms.

In Indonesia, where people are still dying from bird u and where many health experts believe the next pandemic virus will emerge, authorities can still not enter large corporate farms without the permission of the company." 

It will only get worse . . . unless we end industrial meat production

There are clear reasons CAFOs drive pandemics. The stress and crowding reduce animals' immune systems which are already impaired by bio-engineering and the uniform immunity it produces.

The many medications animals are given, including hormones, growth producers and antibiotics further, reduce the animals' health.

Finally, vaccines encourage the development of mutant strains of a virus.

CAFOs not only encourage pandemic-capable viruses, they spread them through polluting the air and water with their run-off, manure lagoons and biosolids.

CAFO's also spread pandemics through their unethical treatment of workers. According to Environmental Health Perspectives, protection of the 54,000 workers working on swine and poultry CAFOs during the H1N1 pandemic was "relatively small" and workers can unwittingly spread the virus:

"In a 2-year prospective study of 803 rural Iowans, published in Emerging Infectious Diseases in December 2007, he [Dr. Gray] found that CAFO workers were 50 times more likely to have elevated H1N1 antibodies than nonexposed controls. Equally important, their spouses were 25 times more likely to harbor these antibodies, reflecting how the viruses can jump from farm workers to their intimate contacts.

Similarly, in work published 15 May 2009 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Gray and coauthor Whitney S. Baker reported that 84% of 44 seroepidemiologic studies reviewed identified an increased risk of zoonotic pathogen infection among veterinarians."

In July, the CDC reported that 16,200 workers across 23 states had tested positive for the virus.

The worldwide danger of CAFOs has long been recognized says Dr. Michael Greger, a physician and internationally recognized public health expert:

"The public health community has been warning about the risks posed by factory farms for years . . . in 2003, the American Public Health Association, the largest and oldest association of public health professionals in the world, called for a moratorium on factory farming. In 2005, the United Nations urged that '[g]overnments, local authorities and international agencies need to take a greatly increased role in combating the role of factory-farming,' which, they said, combined with live animal markets, 'provide ideal conditions for the [influenza] virus to spread and mutate into a more dangerous form.'"

Yet despite the warnings, global industrial meat production marches on.

Martha Rosenberg is a contributing writer to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.

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