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In bird flu, capitalism is the culprit

But will the avian influenza H5N1 kill us all?

Sam Friedman discusses the role of capitalism in the H5N1 virus, known as bird flu, and its potential to mutate and become a pandemic like previous pandemics like COVID-19.

Horror stories are profitable, so it is no surprise that the mass media are full of stories and speculation about H5N1. Saying this, of course, does not mean that the furor is unwarranted.

It is not yet known if the current H5N1 outbreak among animals is likely to spark a pandemic among humans. A second case of the current variant of H5N1 in the U.S. was diagnosed in Colorado on April 28 and a third case in Michigan on May 22. Both are workers whose jobs bring them into contact with cows. Updated information on the status of bird flu cases and CDC efforts around them are available from the CDC.  It is unclear whether this bird flu outbreak will unleash a pandemic among people and whether it will be a deadly outbreak or just create mild discomfort.

In the long run, however, capitalism is creating conditions for more frequent pandemics, and–as COVID-19 showed–ones that have potentially devastating consequences. I sometimes think about a nightmare scenario in which a virus that spreads and mutates as fast as COVID develops two characteristics:

  1. It remains latent for more than a few days, so that no symptoms appear for several weeks. (With HIV/AIDS, latency frequently lasts ten years or more.) This would mean a virus would spread undetected for that long, and infect lots of people very quickly.
  2. It is more virulent, and kills five percent or more of the people who become infected. Some viruses kill fifty percent or more, with HIV killing more than ninety percent of the time before treatments were developed; but luckily, HIV is a relatively difficult virus to transmit. The strain of influenza that caused the great flu pandemic in 1918 had a virulence of 2.5 percent, which meant that about one person in every forty who was infected died.

You can see how frequently pandemics take place from Figure 1 [see below]. The list, which was adapted from a paper published in 2021, is already out of date, since it omits the MPOX pandemic. Luckily, most of these pandemics, including MPOX, were contained rather quickly. AIDS (in the Twentieth Century) and COVID-19 have been two recent exceptions. Even though it is no longer in the news, AIDS is still killing more than half a million people in the world every year. As climate change increasingly disrupts the medical system’s ability to prevent and treat infection, these numbers will almost certainly increase. COVID, too, is likely to erupt again due to climate change, as large numbers of migrants and people fleeing from war zones (conflicts that develop due to climate change interacting with imperial instability) go unvaccinated and untreated. This absence of care lets the virus mutate to become highly infectious and virulent, but cases may go unreported: Public health agencies worldwide have gutted their reporting systems so that “business as usual” can take place.

Most experts expect the frequency of both pandemics and major pandemics to increase, and huge numbers of potential pandemic pathogens are “out there.” Both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Public Health Service have programs to identify potential pandemic pathogens, conduct research on them, keep track of their epidemiology and mutations, and plan responses if they start spreading in humans.  Although many mainstream and Marxist researchers have shown ways in which the economy is multiplying pandemic risks, insofar as I know, no country on Earth has developed programs to try to restrict the ways capitalist economic development and profit making is exacerbating pandemic risks.

Why do pandemics seem to be increasing? Why do I say that capitalism is the culprit? The reasons are very much the same as those behind global climate change although some of the specific pathways are different. Most fundamentally, capitalism is driven by companies’ search for profits. Capitalists make decisions about what and where to invest based on what profit rate they can expect from their investment.  Even if a CEO has a conscience, the calculation is, “If I don’t do it, my competitor will. The damage will occur anyway, and my firm may go out of business.” And as Tempest readers know, governments depend on business growth for the revenues to operate and, for imperialist countries, for the money to build armies with which to dominate other countries.

So business decisions are made with little regard for pandemic risk, which is driven, to a large extent, by the market forces that cause mutated viruses and bacteria in other species to come into contact with humans and then mutate to become even more dangerous. As businesses destroy forests to grow pigs or cattle on the land, or to build suburban houses, this means that animals migrate and come into more contact with people. For example, where I live in New Jersey, this has meant that deer (and thus Lyme disease and any flu strains that infect deer) become frequent visitors to the parks and grass in my neighborhood. When random mutation takes place making it easier for a flu to move from those deer to me, this may lead to a pandemic. I should add that climate change means that lots of animal species are migrating as their habitats become unlivable. This migration puts them into closer contact with humans.

Bird flus have several ways to infect people. One way is directly, which most often happens when a poultry worker gets infected by poultry being grown for profit in unsafe industrial farms. To make matters worse, it is most profitable to do this with chickens that are genetic clones of each other, so if a virus evolves to infect one chicken, there is no genetic variability present to slow down the infection. Such homogeneity may limit mutation as a result, but the possibility of explosive spread encourages mutation towards even greater infectiousness.

Another way is that a bird flu jumps to a cow or pig, and then infects lots of cattle or pigs. Pigs are particularly likely to be good places for flus or other viruses to mutate to infect human beings. This is why swine flu epidemics among people happen with relatively high frequency. And there are a lot of pigs being grown to make profits for meat companies. Each pig that becomes infected has vast numbers of viruses in her or his system, and they replicate at a rapid rate within the pig, with each replication providing the opportunity for mutation that can generate a pandemic among people.  Mike Davis wrote about the risk of flu and other pandemics twenty years ago, and Rob Wallace more recently, as have numerous non-Marxists. So scientists and CEOs in the meat industry and the government should know the risks. But capitalism does not let them take any effective action to keep us safe.

So will the current H5N1 flu mutate to become a horrid pandemic? No one knows.  We do know, however, that there are lots of infected birds and at least 48 species of mammals out there carrying the current virus, and that this is causing massive numbers of deaths in some species of wild birds and South American sea lions, and mutation into potentially pandemic form is always a possibility.

We also can predict that if bird flu does become a pandemic, it will probably begin among workers of poultry or meat mega-corporations and then spread outward, including to workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons. This would suggest that the U.S. Public Health Service and those in similar countries should set up frequent testing for these workers to detect transmission to humans as early as possible—but this has not been done yet, although funding for expanded testing of cattle and people has recently been increased. In all probability, members of racialized groups (in the United States, perhaps particularly African Americans and other Black, Latino/a people, and American Indians) will be particularly likely to get infected—as has been the case for COVID-19 and AIDS. Other working-class people will also be at high risk. As with past pandemics, the rich, and some professionals, will have greater access to medicines and vaccines.

Public health officials say that if H5N1 becomes an epidemic among people, they have millions of doses of medicine to treat it, and can rapidly produce a lot of vaccines as well. This should be reassuring—but we know how badly the U.S. responded to COVID, and we know that public health and medical staff are overworked and few on the ground due to burnout, low pay, and bottom-line bosses. One leading expert on avian flu, David Bunn, has criticized the CDC and other health agencies for not beginning to mass produce vaccines now given the potential horrible costs to human health (and economies) if a pandemic takes off.

In addition, in the wake of COVID-19, many state governments cut the power of public health agencies and governors to respond to epidemics. Furthermore, the anti-vaccine believers are numerous, militant, and supported by a range of politicians and media pundits. Thus, if bird flu does become an epidemic, current politics, fueled as they are by corporations’ need to get back to “business as usual,” will almost certainly weaken any public health response. Even more than in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers will have to strike and take other actions to protect themselves and those they might infect, and community-based mutual aid and community pressures for everyone to wear masks and to stay at home as much as possible will be needed.

So long as capitalism exists, pandemics and climate change will get worse, and from recent events, the ability of the system to respond to them is also getting worse. This means that workers and members of oppressed groups need to organize, and that a major goal of this organizing should be to end capitalism before it ends us.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Sam Friedman View All

Sam Friedman is a member of the Ukraine Solidarity Network, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Tempest Collective. He is a Research Professor of Population Health at a major medical school and the author of over 500 articles in this field in professional journals.