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In Box

The Deadliest Virus

After reading John Barry's The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, U.S. President George W. Bush put the country on high alert for avian flu. With the World Health Organization (WHO) predicting a death toll of up to 100 million, FP spoke to the man who convinced the president of how dangerous the virus really is.

FOREIGN POLICY: You are said to have inspired the president’s avian flu plan. What do you make of it?

John Barry: I think the basics are sound. It’s not perfect. I think there is too much financial responsibility placed on the states, and I’m not absolutely certain there are enough resources, particularly for surveillance.

FP: A pandemic isn’t going to respect national borders. What can be done to assist less-developed countries in fighting the disease?

JB: That’s one question I have about the president’s plan. Part of the surveillance system is helping other countries. To send a virus sample to a participating laboratory that can analyze it costs about $1,000. A poor country doesn’t have $1,000. Give this administration credit. [It has] set up a fund at the WHO dedicated to just that purpose. But there are a lot of other things I don’t think we’ve figured out — [like] a way to encourage farmers to cooperate.

FP: When you look back at how Asian countries dealt with SARS, do you feel more confident about how they’ll deal with bird flu?

JB: The biggest lesson to come out of SARS, and [the flu pandemic of] 1918, is the importance of telling the truth, and we did not see that when [avian flu] reappeared in 2004. That was a lesson that was not learned even though SARS had been only a year earlier. The problem is there are even more economic consequences to influenza than there are to SARS.

FP: Apart from the loss of life, what effect of a pandemic do you think society is least prepared for?

JB: It would be an enormous disruption to trade and economic development. Although I think everybody who looks at the disease realizes that, I’m not sure they are aware of just how dramatic an effect may be created. SARS was just a tiny, tiny foreshadowing of what something like that might be.

FP: What lessons can we learn from the failings of government during Hurricane Katrina?

JB: The pandemic is a different situation because you are going to have an entire nation in flames within a few days. No national government anywhere in the world has the resources to handle that. It’s going to be almost entirely handled by local officials throughout the world.

FP: How concerned are you?

JB: It’s going to happen. What we don’t know is if it has already started.

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