Daily Archives: March 3, 2009

Xe tries to leave history of Blackwater behind as transformation cuts top 2 executives

Associated Press | Mar 2, 2009


blackwater_070919_mn1RALEIGH, N.C. – The Blackwater name is gone. So is the focus on the security business that made it famous. Now the founder who built the private company into one of the world’s most respected — and reviled — defense contractors is stepping aside as its chief executive.

Erik Prince’s decision Monday to relinquish his role as chief executive officer underscored how hard the company now called Xe — pronounced like the letter “z” — is working to bury the Blackwater brand and move its focus further away from the security contracting that severely tarnished its reputation.

Prince appointed a new president and chief operating officer in a management shake-up that he said was part of the company’s “continued reorganization and self-improvement.” It comes less than a month after changing the company’s name to Xe in an effort at re-branding.

“As many of you know, because we focus on continually improving our business that Xe is in the process of a comprehensive restructuring,” Prince wrote in a note to employees and clients. “It is with pride in our many accomplishments and confidence in Xe’s future that I announce my resignation as the company’s Chief Executive Officer.”

Although Prince will retain his position as chairman of the company, the company said he is removing himself from the day-to-day operations. Spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said he plans to spend more time with his family and seven children, adding he plans to open a private-equity venture.

Joseph Yorio, recently a vice president at DHL and a former Army special forces officer, will serve as president, replacing retiring executive Gary Jackson. Danielle Esposito, who has worked within Xe for nearly 10 years, will be the new chief operating officer and executive vice president, the company said.

The CEO position remains open.

With an auto parts inheritance, Prince founded Blackwater in 1997 with some of his former Navy SEAL colleagues. They initially envisioned a world-class training facility to support law enforcement and military. But after Sept. 11, the bombing of the USS Cole and the start of the Iraq War, the company developed a large presence in providing private security.

The company’s lucrative contract to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq comprises about one-third of Xe’s revenues, but the State Department announced it would not rehire the firm after its current contract with the company expires in May. The company has one other major security contract, details of which are classified, and executives have said it will continue doing such work at the U.S. government’s request.

Prince said in an interview in January that losing the contract would be damaging.

“It would hurt us,” Prince said at the time. “It would not be a mortal blow, but it would hurt us.”

That said, executives have long bemoaned what the work in Iraq has cost the company. A 2007 shooting in Nisoor Square involving Blackwater guards drew outrage from politicians in Baghdad and Washington and demands that the company be banned from operating in Iraq.

Late last year, prosecutors charged five of the company’s contractors — but not Blackwater itself — with manslaughter and weapons violations. In January, Iraqi officials said they would not give the company a license to operate.

Xe has already been expanding into other lines of business. It has built a fleet of 76 aircraft that it has deployed to such hotspots as West Africa and Afghanistan.

The firm continues to expand training for law enforcement, with a renewed focus on international clients. Last year, some 25,000 civilians, law enforcement and military personnel were trained by the company.

The company is headquartered in Moyock, about 150 miles northeast of Raleigh.

Influenza expert calls for more use of Tamiflu

Star Times | Feb 22, 2009


Bird flu hasn’t hit New Zealand yet, but a killer Brisbane flu’s imminent threat is a prime reason to dust off your stockpiled Tamiflu.

Influenza expert Dr Lance Jennings told the Sunday Star-Times the best way to protect against flu was vaccination, which would be available around the country from the first week in March.

However, he said the antiviral flu drug, Tamiflu, was underused in New Zealand, despite its effectiveness in treating the potentially fatal disease if taken soon after symptoms begin.

“A lot of people have a stockpile of Tamiflu for bird flu, but few GPs prescribe it for flu.

“I think we need more education around the usage of this drug and for GPs so they are aware they can prescribe it for influenza.”

In 2005, the government stockpiled 855,000 doses of Tamiflu enough to treat 21% of the population and costing $26 million as part of its strategy to cope with a possible bird flu pandemic sweeping the country. The fears also prompted a buy-up of the antiviral by the public.

Jennings, a clinical virologist at Canterbury Health Laboratories, said New Zealand was also the only country in the world to allow pharmacists to prescribe the drug, which meant people suffering flu could buy it over the counter.

This year’s flu jab would protect against three influenza virus strains most likely to hit New Zealanders in winter, including influenza A/Brisbane (H3N2), influenza A/Brisbane (H1N1) and influenza B/Florida.

He was unaware of any deaths in New Zealand from the three strains.

Six children’s deaths in Brisbane last year were blamed on the Brisbane (H3N2) influenza strain, and it had caused a severe flu outbreak in the United Kingdom over the current northern hemisphere’s winter.

New Zealand’s past few winters had been relatively mild for influenza, with the last cluster of children dying from flu in 2005, when three North Island youngsters died of an influenza B strain, Jennings said.

“All influenza has a potential to be deadly. We have no way of predicting [this winter] will be a really bad season, but just looking at the activity of these viruses in the United States and the UK, and what happened in Australia, it’s prudent to advise people there is a vaccine.”

The World Health Organisation recommends which flu strains are included in flu vaccines in both hemispheres.

The flu jab is free for people aged 65-plus and those with certain chronic medical conditions, including asthma and heart disease.

Flu strain proves resistant to Tamiflu

AFP | Mar 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (AFP) — A virulent strain of influenza sowing misery across the United States is proving resistant to what had been until recently the most effective anti-viral drugs, according to a study released Monday.

A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that the H1N1 subtype of influenza A viruses commonly proved resistant to the popular drug oseltamivir.

Oseltamivir, sold commercially in the United States as the drug Tamiflu, is produced by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, and is the main antiviral remedy on the market.

But during the 2007-2008 flu season last year, the Tamiflu-resistant strain of the virus accounted for fully one in five cases of flu in the United States.

Preliminary data during the current 2008-2009 influenza season shows that the virus’s resistance to the Tamiflu continues to be high and that the drug-resistant strain of the flu continue to have a high incidence.

Equally worrying is the virulence of this particular strain of flu. Data last year for 99 individuals infected with oseltamivir-resistant influenza found that five of the patients had to be hospitalized, four of whom died.

The authors wrote that the worrisome development “has highlighted the need for the development of new antiviral drugs and rapid diagnostic tests that determine viral subtype or resistance.”

In an editorial accompanying the study, David Weinstock of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, and Gianna Zuccotti of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital said that the findings also show that researcher can never become complacent when treating the scourge.

“New surprises await in the perpetual struggle with influenza,” they wrote.

“One thing is certain — the organism will continue to evolve.”

Biotech firm admits flu product contained live bird flu virus

Baxter admits flu product contained live bird flu virus

The Canadian Press | Feb 27, 2009

160_bird_flu_060106TORONTO — The company that released contaminated flu virus material from a plant in Austria confirmed Friday that the experimental product contained live H5N1 avian flu viruses.

And an official of the World Health Organization’s European operation said the body is closely monitoring the investigation into the events that took place at Baxter International’s research facility in Orth-Donau, Austria.

“At this juncture we are confident in saying that public health and occupational risk is minimal at present,” medical officer Roberta Andraghetti said from Copenhagen, Denmark.

“But what remains unanswered are the circumstances surrounding the incident in the Baxter facility in Orth-Donau.”

The contaminated product, a mix of H3N2 seasonal flu viruses and unlabelled H5N1 viruses, was supplied to an Austrian research company. The Austrian firm, Avir Green Hills Biotechnology, then sent portions of it to sub-contractors in the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany.

The contamination incident, which is being investigated by the four European countries, came to light when the subcontractor in the Czech Republic inoculated ferrets with the product and they died. Ferrets shouldn’t die from exposure to human H3N2 flu viruses.

Public health authorities concerned about what has been described as a “serious error” on Baxter’s part have assumed the death of the ferrets meant the H5N1 virus in the product was live. But the company, Baxter International Inc., has been parsimonious about the amount of information it has released about the event.

On Friday, the company’s director of global bioscience communications confirmed what scientists have suspected.

“It was live,” Christopher Bona said in an email.

The contaminated product, which Baxter calls “experimental virus material,” was made at the Orth-Donau research facility. Baxter makes its flu vaccine — including a human H5N1 vaccine for which a licence is expected shortly — at a facility in the Czech Republic.

People familiar with biosecurity rules are dismayed by evidence that human H3N2 and avian H5N1 viruses somehow co-mingled in the Orth-Donau facility. That is a dangerous practice that should not be allowed to happen, a number of experts insisted.

Accidental release of a mixture of live H5N1 and H3N2 viruses could have resulted in dire consequences.

While H5N1 doesn’t easily infect people, H3N2 viruses do. If someone exposed to a mixture of the two had been simultaneously infected with both strains, he or she could have served as an incubator for a hybrid virus able to transmit easily to and among people.

That mixing process, called reassortment, is one of two ways pandemic viruses are created.

There is no suggestion that happened because of this accident, however.

“We have no evidence of any reassortment, that any reassortment may have occurred,” said Andraghetti.

“And we have no evidence of any increased transmissibility of the viruses that were involved in the experiment with the ferrets in the Czech Republic.”

Baxter hasn’t shed much light — at least not publicly — on how the accident happened. Earlier this week Bona called the mistake the result of a combination of “just the process itself, (and) technical and human error in this procedure.”

He said he couldn’t reveal more information because it would give away proprietary information about Baxter’s production process.

Andraghetti said Friday the four investigating governments are co-operating closely with the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Control in Stockholm, Sweden.

“We are in very close contact with Austrian authorities to understand what the circumstances of the incident in their laboratory were,” she said.

“And the reason for us wishing to know what has happened is to prevent similar events in the future and to share lessons that can be learned from this event with others to prevent similar events. … This is very important.”

Experimental Virus Mistake Alarms Europe

Miller-McCune | Feb 27, 2009

By Barbara Hesselgrave

mmw_virus_022709_articleEuropean health authorities are unraveling how an “experimental virus material” focused on a seasonal flu became contaminated with H5N1 live bird flu virus and was distributed throughout Central Europe.

The tip-off to a serious problem began in early February, when researchers at a Czech subcontractor facility who inoculated ferrets with the experimental vaccine reported the animals died immediately.

While this agent reportedly was never intended for release, the incident is considered a serious error involving dangerous pathogens, and European officials are saying an accidental release could have resulted in “dire consequences.”

The European Medicine Agency recommended in December that Deerfield, Ill.-based Baxter International be allowed to sell its product, named Celvapan, throughout Europe.

Difficulty in manufacturing large quantities of vaccine has caused many countries to stockpile the protective drugs, however, Baxter’s use of wild type flu viruses is felt to be more dangerous than the attenuated, weakened viruses other manufacturers use. A distribution of live virus proficiency test kits sent out by a manufacturer in 2005 that included the H2N2 virus, the one responsible for the 1957 pandemic, required global efforts to quickly retrieve and destroy the vials of virus sent to 18 countries.

The latest contamination, a mixture of two live viruses — human H3N2 and avian H5N1 — is the deadly stuff of Hollywood screenplays. European health officials describe that people are commonly infected with H3N2, but less so for H5N1. However, if an individual had been co-infected with both, and was then exposed to the contaminated material, they could serve as an incubator for a hybrid virus able to transmit easily among people. Officials say this “reassortment process” is one of two ways that pandemic viruses are created, and research performed in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008 found that the two viruses mate easily, and their “offspring” retain a powerful killing ability.

Dr. Angus Nicoll of the European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control said from Stockholm that officials aren’t 100 percent sure the mixture contained live virus, but the fact that ferrets, “who are susceptible but don’t die from human flu strains,” died immediately is fairly clear evidence that it likely did.

What is still unclear is how live virus, the H5N1, would have become mixed with the live H3N2. Baxter spokesman Christopher Bona, speaking from Deerfield, said that the error originated at its Austrian research facility. That facility had contracted with Avir Green Hills Biotechnology to make what Bona described as an “experimental virus material,” based on human H3N2 viruses, but one that was never intended for vaccine production. Avir Green Hills then sent the material to four subcontractors in the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany.

Sidestepping just how this contamination of the two live virus agents happened, claiming to do so would “give away proprietary information about Baxter’s production process,” Bona told The Canadian Press that Baxter has identified “how the contamination happened and has taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Biosecurity experts, meanwhile, are most unhappy.

Bona said Baxter helped the various companies involved destroy the contaminated material and clean up facilities. Staff members who had been exposed were offered Tamiflu, an anti-viral drug from GlaxoSmithKline.

12 Indian women burn to death every hour

Indian women twice as likely to burn to death, Lancet study finds

The Times | Mar 3, 2009

Twelve Indian women burn to death every hour on average – almost double the corresponding number for men – according to a new study published in The Lancet medical journal.

More than half of those are aged between 15 and 34, and many of their deaths are caused by kitchen accidents, self-immolation, or domestic violence, especially over dowry disputes, the study showed.

The results constitute the latest evidence of the vulnerability of women in India, where equality of the sexes is guaranteed in the constitution but remains a distant dream on the ground for all but the very rich.

Despite a raft of laws to protect women’s rights, activists say that India still suffers among the world’s highest rates of female foeticide and infanticide, child marriage, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

The Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, said that only 1 per cent of private property in India was registered in women’s names, and Indian women, on average, get married by 15 and have their first baby at 17.

The new study claims to be the first to calculate the number of Indian women burnt to death every year as the Government does not compile such statistics and police figures are incomplete and notoriously unreliable.

It was conducted by three US-based researchers – Prachi Sanghavi of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kavi Bhalla of Harvard University, and Veena Das of Johns Hopkins University.

They reached their conclusions by examining death registration records from urban hospitals and a survey of autopsies covering rural populations, and by cross-referencing that data with national mortality estimates.

They estimated that there was a total of about 163,000 fire-related deaths in India in 2001, accounting for 2 per cent of all deaths across the entire country of 1.1 billion people.

Their estimate was six times higher than that reported by Indian police, they said.

Of the total number of fire-related deaths, 106,000 were women, and of those 57 per cent were between the ages of 15 and 34, the study showed.

The average ratio between women and men dying by fire was almost 2:1, while that between young women and young men was 3:1, it showed.

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Hillary Clinton pledges $900 million for rebuilding Gaza


Hillary Clinton with the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, in Egypt today

Times Online | Mar 2, 2009

By James Hider in Jerusalem

Hillary Clinton began her first visit to the Middle East as US Secretary of State today by warning that the region must press ahead towards a peace agreement.

She was speaking at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, where donors are gathered to pledge billions for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.

“We cannot afford more setbacks or delays, or regrets about what might have been had different decisions been made,” Mrs Clinton said. The United States would pledge $900 million (£638 million) to Gaza, she added.


Amnesty International: Gaza white phosphorus shells were US made

Saudi Arabia has already earmarked £1 billion, and it looked likely that the conference would raise the $2.8 billion that it is estimated is needed to rebuild the homes, factories and infrastructure that were destroyed in the blistering Israeli offensive against Gaza in December last year.

Neither Israel nor Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, were present at the conference, leaving it unclear how aid will be channelled to the Gaza Strip, where thousands of families are homeless and living off survival rations because of an Israeli blockade that has lasted almost two years.

Despite the offensive, which was aimed at stopping rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza, Hamas has continued to fire missiles over the border, and says it will continue to do so until the siege is lifted. Israel has said that it will not lift the blockade until Hamas ends its attacks and the crossing points are policed by the Palestinian Authority.

Israel has also linked a truce deal to the release of a kidnapped soldier who has been held by Hamas for two and a half years. In exchange for him, however, Hamas is demanding the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, including some of those responsible for deadly suicide attacks and assassinations in Israel.

The picture is further complicated by the failure of Hamas and the Western-backed Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, to overcome the deep differences which led to a mini civil war in 2007. Reconciliation talks have made little progress.

Mrs Clinton said that the huge sums being pledged today should be channelled through the Palestinian Authority and not fall into the “wrong hands”, a clear reference to Hamas, which Israel, America and Europe list as a terrorist organisation.

Aid workers have warned that any reconstruction efforts will fail if pressure is not exerted to open the border crossings. At present, Israel does not allow cement or steel through the crossings.

“The situation at the border crossings is intolerable. Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in,” Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, told the gathering at the Red Sea resort.

A Western aid official in Jerusalem said: “It all comes down to the single fact that until the Israelis remove the stranglehold on what is allowed in, all the Sharm el-Sheikhs in the world won’t change things one iota.”

President Sarkozy of France stressed the need for Palestinian reconciliation as the basis for any progress, and said that he wanted to see a peace deal by the end of the year.

Mrs Clinton, who warned Hamas to stop its rocket fire, said the basis for peace should be a 2002 plan endorsed by the Arab League, whereby Israel would pull back from the West Bank to allow a Palestinian state to be created there and in Gaza, in return for peace accords with the Arab world. Israel has refused to endorse the plan.