Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld owns stock in the company that makes Tamiflu.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, 2006]
Origins: This particular e-mail first came to us in April 2006. As to its claims, rather than take them in order, we'll examine them in two parts: whether the U.S. Secretary of Defense owns stock in the company that produces Tamiflu, and whether Tamiflu is effective against influenza.
As to the first, it is true Donald Rumsfeld does indeed have stock holdings in Gilead Sciences, Inc., the California biotech company that developed Tamiflu (a product now manufactured and sold by the pharmaceutical giant Roche), and so he benefits financially from increases in that company's stock price. (Gilead receives a royalty from Roche equal to about 10% of sales.) Rumsfeld was a member of Gilead's board of
The Secretary of Defense is not the only politically-connected person to have ties to Gilead. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who is on Gilead's board, has sold more than
Rumsfeld is in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position because of his stock holdings, even though he apparently has no say in what Gilead does (he's no longer on its board) and has removed himself from being part of governmental decisions that affect it (he's recused himself). In a statement to The Independent in March 2006, the Pentagon said: "Secretary Rumsfeld has no relationship with Gilead Sciences, Inc. beyond his investments in the company. When he became Secretary of Defense in January 2001, divestiture of his investment in Gilead was not required by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Office of Government Ethics or the Department of Defense Standards of Conduct Office. Upon taking office, he recused himself from participating in any particular matter when the matter would directly and predictably affect his financial interest in Gilead Sciences."
If Rumsfeld holds onto his stock and its share price rises (which one would expect it to do if an avian flu pandemic becomes a reality, or if concerns about such a pandemic continue to grow), he will be seen to be profiting mightily from sales of a product the
As to the second aspect of the e-mail, whether Tamiflu is effective against influenza (especially the specific H5N1 strain now referred to as avian or bird flu), the
Tamiflu does not cure the flu, but if taken soon after symptoms appear, Tamiflu can reduce the flu's severity. As to how well it's going to match up against bird flu, that is not yet known and indeed it may well not be knowable until the time comes. However, it is anticipated Tamiflu will have at least some effect against bird flu, and with that in mind, more than
Influenza is not a straightforward disease, as it is constantly mutating. While media attention has now conditioned us to regard "bird flu" as a particular entity, in truth there are many forms of "bird flu." The one now the focus of so much concern, the H5N1 strain, was first noted in Asian birds in 1997. That first year,
Viewed from one angle (114 deaths over the course of nine years), avian flu is not worth being much concerned about. But viewed from a more informed standpoint about the nature of influenza, there may indeed be great cause for alarm. Influenza can jump species and move from birds (and other animals, such as pigs) into humans. During the process of that move
Most strains of flu are not deadly to humans, save for members of groups especially at risk to all forms of contagion (e.g. the very young, the very old, and the infirm of all ages). Bird flu, however, is a killer, and if it jumps species and mutates on the fly into a form that humans can easily pass to each other, it could take the lives of millions in the space of weeks, ultimately making the United Nations' projected death toll of
Barbara "the grim reaper may be Tweety" Mikkelson
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