Daily Archives: August 22, 2009

Experts warn Tamiflu can make swine flu virus resistant to treatment

Overuse of antivirals could make H1N1 pandemic even worse

Tamiflu and Relenza are key to fighting the flu virus. But medical authorities warn: Use only when needed, and use them correctly.

LA Times | Aug 24, 2009

By Shari Roan

Indiscriminate use of antiviral medications to prevent and treat influenza could ease the way for drug-resistant strains of the novel H1N1 virus, or swine flu, to emerge, public health officials warn — making the fight against a pandemic that much harder.

Already, a handful of cases of Tamiflu-resistant H1N1 have been reported this summer, and there is no shortage of examples of misuse of the antiviral medications, experts say.

People often fail to complete a full course of the drug, according to a recent British report — a scenario also likely to be occurring in the U.S. and one that encourages resistance. Stockpiling is rife, and some U.S. summer camps have given Tamiflu prophylactically to healthy kids and staff, and have even told campers to bring the drug to camp. Experts anticipate more problems in the fall as children return to school and normal flu season draws nearer.

“Influenza viruses mutate frequently and any viral resistance could be acquired easily,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center on Immunization and Respiratory Disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “It won’t surprise us if we see resistance emerge as a bigger problem in the fall or in the years ahead.”

Prescribed in pill form, Tamiflu (oseltamivir) works by preventing the flu virus from leaving infected cells and spreading to new ones. Because a vaccine against pandemic H1N1 influenza will not be widely available for several months, Tamiflu and to a lesser extent Relenza (zanamivir), an antiviral that acts similarly, are key medical tools for fighting the pandemic in the meantime.

On Friday, however, the World Health Organization advised doctors that even those who are sickened with swine flu do not need to be given Tamiflu or Relenza if they are only mildly or moderately sick and are not in a high-risk group (such as children under 5, pregnant women and those with an underlying health condition).

Both drugs can help prevent illness in people exposed to the virus and reduce illness severity in people already sickened with it. On Aug. 14, after U.S. national soccer team forward Landon Donovan was diagnosed with H1N1 flu, players, coaches and support staff of the U.S. and Galaxy teams were advised to take Tamiflu as a preventive measure.

Tamiflu was chosen a few years ago for stockpiling by the federal government to deal with future pandemics.

Health authorities in the United States and elsewhere are keeping a sharp eye on prescriptions of the drug as they prepare for a surge of H1N1 cases in the fall. The U.S. government has issued detailed guidelines on prescribing antivirals. But health professionals may not follow the recommendations or may give in to patients who pester them for prescriptions that are ill-advised, said Dr. Robert Schechter, acting chief of the immunization branch of the California Department of Public Health.

“These medicines can be very helpful to those who could get very sick,” Schechter said. “But excessive use will accelerate the development of resistance and lead to the lack of a medication for everybody.”

Anxiety over indiscriminate use is growing, and taking the medications cavalierly is not without consequence. British health authorities reported Aug. 2 that cases of side effects from Tamiflu had doubled in the prior week, coinciding with the July 24 launch of a program in England to provide antivirals to anyone with H1N1 influenza who requests it over the phone or online.

In the first three days of the program, 150,000 packets of Tamiflu were dispensed and 293 cases of side effects were reported. Tamiflu can cause vomiting, diarrhea and mild neuropsychiatric effects.

Some U.S. health authorities have also expressed concern over misuse of the medications. Last month, the CDC urged directors of summer camps to stop handing out Tamiflu to healthy campers.

Americans are known to hoard antivirals: A 2006 study showed that heightened anxiety over a possible avian flu pandemic caused Tamiflu prescriptions to soar 300% in 2004 and 2005.

Just as with antibiotics, of central importance to antivirals’ success is taking them properly, including completing the recommended course.

However, a study published in late July found poor adherence among children in London who took Tamiflu for prevention of pandemic H1N1 in the spring.

Less than half of the grade-school-age children and only 76% of the 13- and 14-year-old students completed a full course of medication.

More than half of the children reported side effects, such as nausea, stomach cramps and trouble sleeping. Almost one in five reported a neuropsychiatric side effect, such as poor concentration, confusion or bad dreams, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says neuropsychiatric side effects are rare.

Moreover, a study published this week found that Tamiflu and Relenza are unlikely to prevent complications, such as asthma flare-ups or ear infections, in children who have seasonal influenza. But they do increase the risk of vomiting.

The authors of the study, published in the British Medical Journal, said they don’t know if their findings can be generalized to the pandemic flu strain.

Full Story

CIA hired Blackwater to transfer Guantanamo detainees

AFP | Aug 22, 2009

BERLIN — The US Central Intelligence Agency hired the private security firm Blackwater to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay to secret prisons in Asia for interrogation, the German weekly Der Spiegel says.

The newsmagazine cites a “memo” it said it had obtained, written by two former Blackwater employees whose identities are not revealed.

According to the memo, the CIA hired “Blackwater and its subsidiaries” to secretly transfer prisoners from the US detention centre in Cuba to “secret detention camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan for interrogation.”

The document “identifies the flights and reveals how these flights had been concealed,” Der Spiegel says in its edition due out on Monday.

A CIA spokesman told the magazine the memo contained “errors.”

US press reports on Thursday said the CIA hired Blackwater in 2004 as part of a failed program to find and kill top Al-Qaeda terrorists. CIA director Leon Panetta learned about the plan in June and stopped it.

The memo obtained by Der Spiegel indicates that the CIA hired Blackwater to carry out attacks against targets in Afghanistan.

The document gives the names of several people involved in the programme, one of whom was a “hired killer,” the German magazine says.

The two former employees pin most of the blame on the former number three at the CIA, Alvin Bernard Krongard, the magazine said.

The revelation that the CIA had secret prisons in countries where torture is not forbidden caused an outcry during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Blackwater renamed itself Xe after a shooting incident in Iraq in 2007 that left as many as 17 civilians dead.

Farmers suing German-based Bayer Cropscience over genetically engineered strain of rice

Associated Press | Aug 20, 2009

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Nearly 1,500 rice farmers are suing the German conglomerate Bayer Cropscience and affiliated companies over a genetically engineered strain of rice.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Little Rock claims the farmers’ crops were corrupted by the rice that was produced by Bayer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in August 2006 that traces of an unapproved genetically engineered rice had been found in U.S. supplies of long-grain rice. The lawsuit says Bayer and Riceland Foods Inc. confirmed the traces in early 2006 but didn’t tell farmers, the government or the public until July or August.

A dollar amount being sought in damages is not given in the complaint.

A spokesman for Bayer said he had not seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment.

High schools across the United States go casheless with finger-scanning


Digital Journal | Aug 19, 2009

High school students can now pay with their finger

By Andrew Moran

As many high schools across the United States begin the new school year, students can for their lunches with their fingers instead of cash or a student card.

“I’m just really glad I don’t have to remember a number every day or have a card or something. All you have to do is put your finger down and go,” said one 14-year-old high school student. Instead of paying with cash, a pupil can place their index finger on a scanner and be on their way with lunch, according to The Chronicle Telegram.

As of Monday, freshman students can use the lunch account finger-scan but by the end of next week all 2,100 students can access this type of system.

Another 14-year-old high school student was relieved about this finger-scanning system, “As long as there is money in my account, I won’t have to worry about anything. It’s going to make lunch that much easier.”

The school staff will also be using this latest technology.

This biometric system will cost $91,000 and be implemented by Sodexo, who will be hoping that this program will go district-wide and that parents will sign up their students at a high rate in order to recoup their losses.

At the present time there are minor kinks in the system but the general manager of Sodexo, the district’s food service provider, Bill Jett says, “When it’s really up and running it will make things go a lot smoother and faster.”

However, this is not the only amenity that students and faculty can look forward to, according to Principal Darren Conley, “The technology is already out there for us to use biometrics in a number of ways. In the future, we are looking at adding it to the media center for signing materials out or in the classrooms for attendance.”

After the present school year is complete, Elyria High School will be closed and the new building will have an air conditioner, which many people are looking forward to such as a 14-year-old student, “It is so crowded in here that sometimes it’s hard to go up the steps. I can’t wait for the new school to open. We are going to get to experience both the old school and the new school.”

Ice Capades: Greenpeace recants polar ice claim, but “emotionalizing” is OK

wattsupwiththat.com | Aug 19, 2008

Well it is that time of year again, the Arctic ice begins to melt, as it does every year, and all sorts of crazy talk starts coming out. This time from Greenpeace. I am encouraged though, as they have come around to the idea that maybe they are doing more harm than good by overselling the alarmism.

NSIDC also has taken a more moderate tone, announcing that there will “likely be no record low ice extent in 2009“. This is a sharp contrast to last year’s ridiculous press statement from NSIDC’s Dr. Mark Serreze about an “ice free north pole”. Now that Greenpeace has come clean on their statement, maybe Dr. Serreze will finally admit his statement was “a mistake”. – Anthony

Full Story

Greenpeace Leader Admits Arctic Ice Exaggeration and “Emotionalizing” the Issue

C.I.A. Used Blackwater to Put Bombs on Drones

C.I.A. Said to Use Outsiders to Put Bombs on Drones

NY Times | Aug 20, 2009

By JAMES RISEN and MARK MAZZETTI

WASHINGTON — From a secret division at its North Carolina headquarters, the company formerly known as Blackwater has assumed a role in Washington’s most important counterterrorism program: the use of remotely piloted drones to kill Al Qaeda’s leaders, according to government officials and current and former employees.

The division’s operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.

The role of the company in the Predator program highlights the degree to which the C.I.A. now depends on outside contractors to perform some of the agency’s most important assignments. And it illustrates the resilience of Blackwater, now known as Xe (pronounced Zee) Services, though most people in and outside the company still refer to it as Blackwater. It has grown through government work, even as it attracted criticism and allegations of brutality in Iraq.

A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to comment for this article.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the agency hired Blackwater in 2004 as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top Qaeda operatives.

In interviews on Thursday, current and former government officials provided new details about Blackwater’s association with the assassination program, which began in 2004 not long after Porter J. Goss took over at the C.I.A. The officials said that the spy agency did not dispatch the Blackwater executives with a “license to kill.” Instead, it ordered the contractors to begin collecting information on the whereabouts of Al Qaeda’s leaders, carry out surveillance and train for possible missions.

“The actual pulling of a trigger in some ways is the easiest part, and the part that requires the least expertise,” said one government official familiar with the canceled C.I.A. program. “It’s everything that leads up to it that’s the meat of the issue.”

Any operation to capture or kill militants would have had to have been approved by the C.I.A. director and presented to the White House before it was carried out, the officials said. The agency’s current director, Leon E. Panetta, canceled the program and notified Congress of its existence in an emergency meeting in June.

The extent of Blackwater’s business dealings with the C.I.A. has largely been hidden, but its public contract with the State Department to provide private security to American diplomats in Iraq has generated intense scrutiny and controversy.

The company lost the job in Iraq this year, after Blackwater guards were involved in shootings in 2007 that left 17 Iraqis dead. It still has other, less prominent State Department work.

Five former Blackwater guards have been indicted in federal court on charges related to the 2007 episode.

A spokeswoman for Xe did not respond to a request for comment.

For its intelligence work, the company’s sprawling headquarters in North Carolina has a special division, known as Blackwater Select. The company’s first major arrangement with the C.I.A. was signed in 2002, with a contract to provide security for the agency’s new station in Kabul, Afghanistan. Blackwater employees assigned to the Predator bases receive training at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to learn how to load Hellfire missiles and laser-guided smart bombs on the drones, according to current and former employees, who asked not to be identified for fear of upsetting the company.

The C.I.A. has for several years operated Predator drones out of a remote base in Shamsi, Pakistan, but has secretly added a second site at an air base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, several current and former government and company officials said. The existence of the Predator base in Jalalabad has not previously been reported.

Officials said the C.I.A. now conducted most of its Predator missile and bomb strikes on targets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region from the Jalalabad base, with drones landing or taking off almost hourly. The base in Pakistan is still in use. But officials said that the United States decided to open the Afghanistan operation in part because of the possibility that the Pakistani government, facing growing anti-American sentiment at home, might force the C.I.A. to close the one in Pakistan.

Blackwater is not involved in selecting targets or actual strikes. The targets are selected by the C.I.A., and employees at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., pull the trigger remotely. Only a handful of the agency’s employees actually work at the Predator bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the current and former employees said.

They said that Blackwater’s direct role in these operations had sometimes led to disputes with the C.I.A. Sometimes when a Predator misses a target, agency employees accuse Blackwater of poor bomb assembly, they said. In one instance last year recounted by the employees, a 500-pound bomb dropped off a Predator before it hit the target, leading to a frantic search for the unexploded bomb in the remote Afghan-Pakistani border region. It was eventually found about 100 yards from the original target.

The role of contractors in intelligence work expanded after the Sept. 11 attacks, as spy agencies were forced to fill gaps created when their work forces were reduced during the 1990s, after the end of the cold war.

More than a quarter of the intelligence community’s current work force is made up of contractors, carrying out missions like intelligence collection and analysis and, until recently, interrogation of terrorist suspects.

“There are skills we don’t have in government that we may have an immediate requirement for,” Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who ran the C.I.A. from 2006 until early this year, said during a panel discussion on Thursday on the privatization of intelligence.

General Hayden, who succeeded Mr. Goss at the agency, acknowledged that the C.I.A. program continued under his watch, though it was not a priority. He said the program was never prominent during his time at the C.I.A., which was one reason he did not believe that he had to notify Congress. He said it did not involve outside contractors by the time he came in.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who presides over the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the agency should have notified Congress in any event. “Every single intelligence operation and covert action must be briefed to the Congress,” she said. “If they are not, that is a violation of the law.”