Are We Ready for the Bird Flu?

ByABC News
September 29, 2005, 1:27 PM

Sept. 29, 2005 — -- ANNOUNCER: Thursday night, Sept. 15, 2005. It's time for "Primetime." Katrina's barely over. Is the worst disaster ever finally behind us? Not on your life. Tonight, "Primetime" puts you in the hot zone. But it's not just what can go wrong. It's what you can do right to save yourself in the next three big disasters experts say are just waiting to happen. A catastrophic earthquake.

FIRE AND RESCUE WORKER, MALE: Prepare yourselves. Shut off the gas and shut off electricity.

ANNOUNCER: An epidemic of avian flu, the whole world over.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH AND POLICY: I can't imagine anything that would be closer to a living hell.

ANNOUNCER: And a nuclear bomb in an American city.

CHRIS CUOMO, ABC NEWS: I get in my car, if I have one, and I take off.

ANNOUNCER: But what if we told you your first instincts to save yourself are wrong? Tonight, the warnings are here, and so are the answers. Ready or not? The next big one. Here now, Chris Cuomo.

CHRIS CUOMO: Good evening and welcome to "Primetime." Imagine a huge bridge like the one behind me being the only way out of your town and it's crammed with desperate drivers trying to evacuate. Now, we saw something like it during Hurricane Katrina, and the problem may well arise again during the now unthinkable next big disaster. It's a subject the president addressed in his speech tonight.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority.

CHRIS CUOMO: So what does that mean to you? What would you do in a hurricane or a manmade catastrophe like a nuclear or biological attack? These are frightening thoughts, of course they are. But tonight is not just about what can go wrong. It's about what you can do right.

We start with a virus poised to create a global epidemic. Are we ready? Here's ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross.

BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS: It has the potential to turn parts of major cities into ghost towns.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We would expect between 1.5 and 1.7 million Americans to die.

BRIAN ROSS: Officials in London are already quietly looking for extra morgue space.

DR. IRWIN REDLENER, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: We could have a billion people dying worldwide.

BRIAN ROSS: It could hit as early as this winter, and there's no vaccine and not enough medicine to fight it.

DOCTOR, MALE: There is very much a sense of a race against time.

BRIAN ROSS: Against this, a microscopic view of a never before seen strain of the flu that scientists say could pose a much more real and greater threat than smallpox, AIDS or anthrax. Known to scientists as H5N1.

LAURIE GARRETT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Right now in human beings, it kills 55 percent of the people it infects. That makes it the most lethal flu we know of that has ever been on planet Earth affecting human beings.

BRIAN ROSS: Laurie Garrett is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. The most recent issue of its prestigious Foreign Affairs journal contains a special report on what it calls the coming global epidemic, a pandemic.

LAURIE GARRETT: Each year different flues come, but your immune says, I've seen that guy before, no problem, crank out some antibodies. Might not feel great for a couple of days, but I'll recover. Now what's scaring us is that this constellation of H number 5 and N number 1, to our knowledge has never in history been in our species. So absolutely nobody watching this has any natural immunity to this form of flu.

BRIAN ROSS: This form of the flu started as do almost all flu viruses, in wild birds in Asia.

BILL KARESH, WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY: They die of pneumonia just like people. When you open them up, you do a post-mortem exam, their lungs are just full of fluid and full of blood.

BRIAN ROSS: Bill Karesh, the lead veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society, has been tracking this rare flu strain since it first emerged in the 1990s, and has watched it as it's gained strength going from wild birds to chickens to humans.

BILL KARESH: The last outbreak in July that was reported was this part of China. It started in a market somewhere in the Guangdong Province. It's just packed with cages. you'll have chickens, you'll have ducks, cats, dogs, turtles, snakes. And they're all stacked in cages and they're all spreading their germs to each other.

BRIAN ROSS: Asian governments have killed millions of chickens in a futile attempt to stop the flu's spread. Dr. Irwin Redlener heads Columbia University's Center for Disaster Preparedness.

DR. IRWIN REDLENER: The tipping point, the place where it becomes something of immediate concern is when that virus mutates to something that is able to go from human to human.