Daily Archives: July 27, 2009

Inventor of Tamiflu profits from swine flu pandemic

Swine flu may be feared by millions around the world but for one man the global pandemic has been very good news indeed.

Telegraph | Jul 27, 2009

By Allan Hall in Berlin

Dr. Norbert Bischofberger, 55, is the inventor of Tamiflu, the only medication on the market to treat the virus. He has made millions from the drug, but colleagues have said it was science, not money, that motivated him.

A graduate of Innsbruck, Zurich and Harvard universities, Dr Bischofberger headed a research team to create Tamiflu, the first orally active commercially developed anti-influenza medication, for US company Gilead Sciences in the 1990s.

Swine flu: Mass advertising campaign as ministers step up fightHe is now a director of research and vice-president of Gilead in California which owns the intellectual rights to Tamiflu and outsources it to Swiss pharma giant Roche to manufacture and distribute.

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He earns about £450,000 a year but has stock options and bonuses in the tens of millions of pounds. And he takes a handsome percentage of Tamiflu profits as governments around the world stockpile it as the virus spreads.

But in an interview with a German Sunday newspaper it was reported he “gets quite angry” if it was suggested he had become rich through the deadly virus.

“No person ever said on his death bed: I only wish I had earned more money in my life,” he said.

“When it gets to the end one wants to look back and have the feeling that one was important in the lives of others, perhaps to have changed them positively.” He said it was his “blessing” to be a scientist and to have invented Tamiflu.

Swine flu has killed more than 700 people globally, and Dr Bischofberger predicted the death toll would rise. He warned that pandemics were one of the biggest threats to the human race.

“I think the threat by new bacterial or viral agents is higher than the potential of a nuclear war.”

Nazi Strength Through Joy leisure programme to get museum in German far-Right proposals

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An NPD Party supporter Photo: REUTERS

Germany’s far-right NPD Party is on a collision course with the government over plans to build a museum celebrating the Third Reich’s “Strength Through Joy” movement, which organised leisure activities for the masses.

Telegraph | Jul 27, 2009

By Allan Hall in Berlin

Jürgen Rieger, the vice-president of the party that seeks to ban all immigration and sever all ties with the EU, has submitted plans to authorities in Wolfsburg – home to car giant Volkswagen – for the museum intended to “show the people what this organisation did and what it meant”.

But critics have accused Mr Rieger of using the museum as a way to spread pro-Nazi propaganda.

Sir Brian CorbyStrength Through Joy, at one time the largest tour operator in the world, was created to promote “a National Socialist people’s community and the perfection and refinement of the German people” through its tightly structured recreational programmes.

Battalions of Strength Through Joy workers built the massive holiday complex of Prora on the Baltic Sea intended to be used by 20,000 holidaying Nazi loyalists at one time. the organisation also controlled a fleet of cruise ships that allowed pre-war Germans to travel to far away destinations at rock bottom prices.

And it also financed the production of the “people’s car” by VW, which later became the classic Beetle of the post-war years.

By the time war broke out, it was virtually redundant, but had accomplished its task: binding the people to Hitler and controlling leisure the way every other activity was controlled under the regime.

Mr Rieger’s plans to turn an old furniture warehouse into a museum have met with stiff opposition.

Ralf Schmidt, a spokesman for the city, said: “We will use every legal means at our disposal to stop this from becoming a reality.” Because Mr Rieger has made his application to have the museum as a “commercial enterprise”, the initiative, which critics say “glorifies Naziism”will be more difficult to stop than if it were merely being opened as a political showcase for the NPD viewpoint.

Mr Rieger has already assembled a fleet of Nazi-era cars, propaganda posters, documents, flags and uniforms of the movement ready to go on display.

Local officials fear that the museum will become nothing more than a shrine to the far-right, who continue to indulge in violent racist attacks while attracting more vulnerable young people during the economic downturn.

In June, Mr Rieger founded an association to promote the museum. A barbecue and music evening at the intended site turned bloody when NPD members with shaved heads attacked journalists who turned up to report on the event with clubs and beer bottles.

Later the same night, a black man was beaten up at the main train station.

Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man

robot_recharge

This personal robot plugs itself in when it needs a charge. Servant now, master later?

NY Times | Jul 26, 2009

By JOHN MARKOFF

A robot that can open doors and find electrical outlets to recharge itself. Computer viruses that no one can stop. Predator drones, which, though still controlled remotely by humans, come close to a machine that can kill autonomously.

Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.

Their concern is that further advances could create profound social disruptions and even have dangerous consequences.

As examples, the scientists pointed to a number of technologies as diverse as experimental medical systems that interact with patients to simulate empathy, and computer worms and viruses that defy extermination and could thus be said to have reached a “cockroach” stage of machine intelligence.

While the computer scientists agreed that we are a long way from Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” they said there was legitimate concern that technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.

The researchers — leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

They focused particular attention on the specter that criminals could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were developed. What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smart phones?

The researchers also discussed possible threats to human jobs, like self-driving cars, software-based personal assistants and service robots in the home. Just last month, a service robot developed by Willow Garage in Silicon Valley proved it could navigate the real world.

A report from the conference, which took place in private on Feb. 25, is to be issued later this year. Some attendees discussed the meeting for the first time with other scientists this month and in interviews.

The conference was organized by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, and in choosing Asilomar for the discussions, the group purposefully evoked a landmark event in the history of science. In 1975, the world’s leading biologists also met at Asilomar to discuss the new ability to reshape life by swapping genetic material among organisms. Concerned about possible biohazards and ethical questions, scientists had halted certain experiments. The conference led to guidelines for recombinant DNA research, enabling experimentation to continue.

The meeting on the future of artificial intelligence was organized by Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft researcher who is now president of the association.

Dr. Horvitz said he believed computer scientists must respond to the notions of superintelligent machines and artificial intelligence systems run amok.

The idea of an “intelligence explosion” in which smart machines would design even more intelligent machines was proposed by the mathematician I. J. Good in 1965. Later, in lectures and science fiction novels, the computer scientist Vernor Vinge popularized the notion of a moment when humans will create smarter-than-human machines, causing such rapid change that the “human era will be ended.” He called this shift the Singularity.

This vision, embraced in movies and literature, is seen as plausible and unnerving by some scientists like William Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Other technologists, notably Raymond Kurzweil, have extolled the coming of ultrasmart machines, saying they will offer huge advances in life extension and wealth creation.

“Something new has taken place in the past five to eight years,” Dr. Horvitz said. “Technologists are replacing religion, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture.”

The Kurzweil version of technological utopia has captured imaginations in Silicon Valley. This summer an organization called the Singularity University began offering courses to prepare a “cadre” to shape the advances and help society cope with the ramifications.

“My sense was that sooner or later we would have to make some sort of statement or assessment, given the rising voice of the technorati and people very concerned about the rise of intelligent machines,” Dr. Horvitz said.

The A.A.A.I. report will try to assess the possibility of “the loss of human control of computer-based intelligences.” It will also grapple, Dr. Horvitz said, with socioeconomic, legal and ethical issues, as well as probable changes in human-computer relationships. How would it be, for example, to relate to a machine that is as intelligent as your spouse?

Dr. Horvitz said the panel was looking for ways to guide research so that technology improved society rather than moved it toward a technological catastrophe. Some research might, for instance, be conducted in a high-security laboratory.

The meeting on artificial intelligence could be pivotal to the future of the field. Paul Berg, who was the organizer of the 1975 Asilomar meeting and received a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1980, said it was important for scientific communities to engage the public before alarm and opposition becomes unshakable.

“If you wait too long and the sides become entrenched like with G.M.O.,” he said, referring to genetically modified foods, “then it is very difficult. It’s too complex, and people talk right past each other.”

Tom Mitchell, a professor of artificial intelligence and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University, said the February meeting had changed his thinking. “I went in very optimistic about the future of A.I. and thinking that Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil were far off in their predictions,” he said. But, he added, “The meeting made me want to be more outspoken about these issues and in particular be outspoken about the vast amounts of data collected about our personal lives.”

Despite his concerns, Dr. Horvitz said he was hopeful that artificial intelligence research would benefit humans, and perhaps even compensate for human failings. He recently demonstrated a voice-based system that he designed to ask patients about their symptoms and to respond with empathy. When a mother said her child was having diarrhea, the face on the screen said, “Oh no, sorry to hear that.”

A physician told him afterward that it was wonderful that the system responded to human emotion. “That’s a great idea,” Dr. Horvitz said he was told. “I have no time for that.”

New law lets police use force to compel hurricane evacuation

caller.com | Jul 26, 2009

By Denise Malan

A new state law will allow police to arrest people who don’t leave town under mandatory evacuation orders.

As it stands, officials cannot compel people to evacuate, only warn that those who stay behind won’t have any emergency services at their disposal. The new law gives county judges and mayors the power to authorize use of “reasonable force” to remove people from the area.

The law, passed this year, takes effect Sept. 1, in the heart of hurricane season in Texas. It also applies to other disasters, such as fires or floods.

Don’t expect police to go door to door arresting people or forcing them from their homes if a hurricane is headed toward Corpus Christi.

“If the hurricane is arriving here, we’re going to be doing the best we can to hunker things down, to make sure we have as many special-needs patients evacuated, to prevent crime and looting,” Corpus Christi Police Cmdr. Mark Schauer said. “We’re going to have a hard enough time preventing crime, let alone arresting people who don’t leave.”

County Judge Loyd Neal agreed that arrests for ignoring orders are unlikely.

“I don’t have a jail big enough to put 20,000 people in,” Neal said. “You have to hope people will use good sense. The majority of people usually do.”

Schauer sees the law more as a tool to compel people to leave, or to be used in special situations. For example, officials could issue a mandatory evacuation for the beaches, giving police the authority to arrest people who go storm-watching and put themselves in danger.

A man died after being swept off a Packery Channel jetty last summer as he watched swells caused by Hurricane Ike as it headed toward Galveston.

The law also makes people who must be rescued after ignoring mandatory evacuation orders civilly liable for the costs of the rescue.

A mandatory evacuation order often is a course of last resort, for a variety of economic and logistical reasons. Hospitals and nursing homes must move patients, and businesses must let workers leave town.

The evacuation provision is part of a larger bill overhauling the emergency response code after Hurricane Ike. The bill also directs the Governo

Nurses oppose mandatory immunization

Business Review | Jul 24, 2009

The New York State Nurses Association has come out against a state regulation that requires every health-care worker to be immunized against influenza.

The regulation has been adopted by the New York State Hospital Planning and Review Council. It’s intended as a defense against a possible fall outbreak of swine flu.

The Nurses Association called the council’s action a “scorched earth” approach.

“While we encourage nurses to be immunized for the flu, we do not agree that nurses should be required to get immunizations as a condition of employment,” said Eileen Avery, associate director of the association’s education, practice and research program.

Avery contended that the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective. “There is no guarantee that in any given year, the public will benefit from mandatory immunization of health-care providers,” she said.

US gears for huge swine flu vaccination push

AFP | Jul 27, 2009

By Virginie Montet

A woman in Washington, DC walks past a large sign warning ab out A(H1N1), or swine flu.

A woman in Washington, DC walks past a large sign warning ab out A(H1N1), or swine flu.

WASHINGTON(AFP) — Anxiously eyeing the approach of winter, US health officials are urgently gearing up for a huge vaccine campaign hoping Americans will swing behind efforts to protect them from swine flu.

“Ultimately, the number of people that we hope will be vaccinated before the fall winter wave of H1N1 arrives will exceed any of the previous vaccine campaigns that we’ve conducted in this country,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told AFP.

“This is the largest vaccine effort the world has ever seen,” agreed Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority (BARDA), quoted in the Washington Post.

But authorities also have to overcome a vocal debate in the United States about vaccinations, amid lingering suspicions among some parents that they are not safe for young children.

“At this point it is just really unclear to say how many will get vaccinated,” said Osterholm.

“It’s all going to be a matter of when the vaccine is available. If the vaccine is available, and people are getting sick in the winter, then I think you are going to see many more people wanting the vaccine.”

The United States is now the country the worst hit by the swine flu pandemic which spread across the border from the disease’s epicenter in neighboring Mexico earlier this year.

Elderly citizens and children are the most vulnerable to the (A)H1N1 virus — a new multi-strain illness which is thought to be a kind of bird flu which mixed in a pig and was then passed to humans.

Some 263 people have so far died across the country, and more than 40,000 cases have been registered, although US health officials have said they believe as many as a million people could already be infected.

To put the figures in perspective, officials stress that ordinary seasonal flu kills on average some 36,000 people a year in a nation with 300 million people.

But an all-out effort has been launched to put in place a vaccine before the start of the traditional flu season in the coming months.

Health officials have called for thousands of volunteers to join clinical tests of two vaccines with the aim of having results in two months time, enabling the vaccination campaign to start at the beginning of the fall.

“We are hopeful we’ll be talking about several hundred million people getting vaccinated if possible,” said Osterholm.

“It’s going to literally be a function of how much vaccine we’ll ultimately have before the wave really takes hold in this country.”

An emergency meeting of health officials has been set for Wednesday, July 29, to work on an action plan and identify the groups most at risk.

“Everything is going to be done to try to encourage people to get it,” said Gretchen Michael, a BARDA spokeswoman, referring to the vaccine.

“As you know the virus is still circulating. It’s been circulating all summer. We anticipate based on what we see in the southern hemisphere that… especially when children go back to school, it will continue to circulate at a similar kind of rate.”

But no-one here has quite forgotten the 1976 vaccination fiasco.

After an outbreak of a swine flu virus on a military base, officials feared the nation was on the verge of another epidemic similar to the 1918 wave of deadly Spanish flu. So 40 million Americans were hastily vaccinated.

But the virus never spread, and instead 500,000 people developed a rare inflammation of the nervous system known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which led to 25 deaths.

“People are working day and night on this,” said William Schaffner, infectious diseases teacher at Vanderbilt University, talking on National Public Radio.

“Some of these things just take time, and remember we don’t want to cut corners, we want to do it right so that, when we deliver this vaccine to the American public we can say it meets our standards.”

The clinical trials are mainly aimed at calibrating the doses to give to patients, not to test if it is safe or not, officials stressed.

“We are not trying to find some yet unrecognized problem with the vaccine,” said Osterholm.

Europe’s rush to inoculate

Straights Times | Jul 27, 2009

LONDON – IN A drive to inoculate people against H1N1 before winter, many European governments say they will fast-track testing of a new vaccine, raising fears about safety issues and proper doses. The European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s (EU) top drug regulatory body, is accelerating the approval process for Influenza A (H1N1) vaccine, and countries such as Britain, Greece, France and Sweden say they will start using it when it is cleared – possibly within weeks.

But World Health Organisation flu chief Keiji Fukuda warned of the potential dangers of untested vaccines, saying on Friday: ‘One of the things which cannot be compromised is the safety of vaccines.

‘There are certain areas where you can make economies, perhaps, but certain areas where you simply do not try.’

One of the problems is that without large-scale trials, any rare side-effects of a new vaccine will not become apparent until millions of people get the shots. While a European Medicines Agency spokesman admitted that the situation is ‘far from ideal’, he added: ‘With the winter flu season approaching, we need to make sure the vaccine is available.’

But another problem with skipping large-scale tests is that it will be difficult to gauge the effective dosage – meaning Europeans might get too weak a vaccine. It is unlikely the vaccine will endanger anyone, but until it is used in large numbers of people, no one will know.

Mass vaccination campaigns will also take place in the shadow of the 1976 swine flu disaster, when hundreds of people in the United States developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralysing disorder, after being vaccinated. Experts still do not know why that happened, and the US is taking a more cautious approach than Europe, calling last week for several thousand volunteers to receive the vaccine in tests ahead of a vaccination campaign in October.

Meanwhile, Australia has become a global H1N1 case study, with Europe and the US watching closely as it battles the disease in the Southern Hemisphere winter. The outbreak began there in early May, as it entered its annual flu season, and within a month Melbourne was the world’s ‘swine flu capital’. More than 40 deaths and 16,000 cases later, Australia’s experience holds valuable lessons for northern countries contemplating the onset of autumn and winter.

‘There’s no doubt that the lessons learned from Australia will be useful for overseas,’ said University of New South Wales epidemiologist William Rawlinson.

The Australian authorities were forced to fine-tune their response as the threat evolved, abandoning attempts at such measures as border controls and focusing on the most vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and those with existing medical problems. ‘Australia has seen you do have to change your response and get that message out to the public and the health community,’ Professor Rawlinson said.

‘The issues have to be very clear – otherwise, people get confused. As deaths rise and as critical care becomes more important you have to respond to that, and that’s one thing we’ve done very well.’