Drug companies, the re-creation of the 1918 'flu, and so-called bird 'flu

Television review

by Stephen Hewitt

Programme details

"Beating Bird Flu an Equinox Special", Producer and Director Tim Tate, a Granada Production, Channel 4 Television Corporation, MMVI

The programme reviewed here was broadcast in England on Saturday 18 March 2006 ending approximately 21:00 GMT on digital terrestrial television channel "More4". According to listings the same programme had already been broadcast starting at 20:00 on 13 March 2006 on Channel 4 and again at 4am on 17 March 2006 on Channel 4.


This is a summary of only approximately the last twenty minutes of this programme, because that is all that I have seen.

This programme suggests that the 1918 'flu pandemic was a "bird 'flu" and that H5N1 bird 'flu could mutate into a similar strain. John Oxford of the Royal London Hospital is interviewed and is said to be searching for where and when the 1918 'flu epidemic started. His motivation for this is not explained. Many things in this programme are not explained, and more than once what appears to be an explanation does not make sense. The part I have seen is essentially poor and patronising. (Incidentally, within a few weeks of the broadcast of this programme, I saw Oxford on a television news programme about bird 'flu, and his affiliation was given as something different).

Jeffery Taubenberger, described as a "pathologist" at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology near Washington DC, and his team took 9 years to discover the genetic sequence of the 1918 'flu virus. The programme does not say when the 9 years started or ended. Terence Tumpey at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Atlanta, Georgia, USA has brought the deadly 1918 'flu virus "back to life". This took two years, but again the programme is elusive about the dates. The disease has been used in experiments on mice.

The main symptom of the 1918 'flu and of H5N1 is that the victims "all drowned in their own lungs". This is caused by the victim's own immune response and a "phenomenon" called "cytokine storm". Young adults are known to have more active immune systems and this discovery might explain why they had a higher death rate than older people. Dr Chris Smith, "virologist, Cambridge University" says: "the immune system gets kick-started in a very big way and non-discriminantly starts removing cells hither and thither and it causes enormous amounts of inflammation and with inflammation blood vessels get very leaky fluid moves out of the blood stream and into the air spaces and so as a result you do the equivalent of drowning."

The programme ends with the feel of a corporate promotion video. While presenting images of tablets streaming off a drug production line, it tells us that there are novel anti-viral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza which could be used should a another deadly 'flu epidemic start: ..."the way of stamping on this disease is the use of these new novel compounds anti-viral drugs treating not just sick people but using it almost like a vaccine and treating healthy people who are in the vicinity of those cases." The programme is at pains to emphasise the importance of using the drugs as a kind of "quarantine".

The programme does not tell us which companies profit from these drugs, but it does briefly show an image of a device that has printed on it "Relenza Diskhaler GlaxoWellcome". No drug company names appear in the credits, although the film of the drug production lines must have come from inside their factories.


The reported characteristic deadly symptom of the 1918 'flu brings to mind the three sudden deaths with lung haemorrhage in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 2003. Samples were sent to the CDC in Atlanta (where Terence Tumpey has brought the 1918 'flu back to life). Under the heading "Mysterious Deaths", a newspaper report at the time said:

Three people living about 3km apart died suddenly between August 12 and 22. All of them had haemorrhages in their lungs and died within about an hour of collapsing

Their deaths sparked a nationwide alert, as hospitals were asked to report any similar cases. Samples are being tested in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and the United States Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta Georgia. A recent report on television suggested if a fourth case was found in Dunedin a civil emergency could be declared, with authorities considering closing the city's airport and restricting people's movement. © NZPA

New Zealand News UK, 3 September 2003, page 3

Selected credits

narrator: David Malone

production co-ordinator: Rachel Higginbottom

production manager: Hazel Coe

researcher: Kevin Forde

archive producer: Kate Sangway

film editor: Mike Eustace

producer: Simone Pilkington

executive producer:Liz Mcleod

producer and director: Tim Tate

A Granada Production

Channel 4 Television Corporation, MMVI