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Our World Transcript — November 5, 2005

This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Planning for the pandemic ... the value of biodiversity ... and deep sea coral as ocean historian.

ROSS: "we can go back to, say, potentially, the year 1700 and find out what the temperature of the ocean was, what the pollutant load was, and what the status of the productivity was."

Those stories, great engineering achievements on our Website of the Week, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The avian, or bird flu that has killed about 60 people in Southeast Asia — half of those have been infected — continues to spread. Public health experts have been warning that if the virus mutates to a form that could spread quickly from person-to-person, it could unleash a pandemic, potentially threatening millions of lives around the world.

This week, President George Bush announced a $7 billion initiative to prepare the United States for a possible flu pandemic. More than one-third of that money would be aimed at accelerating development of better ways to make the vaccine, now made in a process using chicken eggs:

BUSH: "In the event of a pandemic, this antiquated process would take many, many months to produce a vaccine, and it would not allow us to produce enough vaccine for every American in time."

Because vaccine production is tied to chicken eggs, Dr. Mark Steinhoff of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says the process is slow.

STEINHOFF: "If we knew today that we need to make a completely new vaccine for a pandemic, it would take somewhere between six months or longer to take that vaccine and put it into our current system and make enough doses for a pandemic. And ... a substantial part of the delay is related to the fact that you have to organize egg production."

Vaccines for other diseases are produced through a different process, which might be adapted for manufacturing a flu vaccine — a better way of producing the same vaccine, in other words, says Bruce Gellin, head of the U.S. National Vaccine Program.

GELLIN: "The conversion to cell-based system is to essentially do the same thing in a more modern way, using cells to grow virus. And at the end of the line you still have that same antigen."

An antigen is a substance that prompts the body to mount an immune response.

Other than the way it's made, another problem with flu vaccines is that each one has to be custom-built to protect against an individual strain of influenza, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

FAUCI: "There are components of the influenza virus that are very constant from flu strain to flu strain. We've not been able to utilize that to get our 'universal vaccine' because many of those proteins are not highly immunogenic, which means they don't stimulate the immune system very well."

STEINHOFF: "And people are working on that."

Again, Mark Steinhoff of Johns Hopkins.

STEINHOFF: "There are some interesting ideas and some interesting technologies to basically pick a part of the flu virus that does not change every year. The parts that are put in the vaccine now are the proteins which do mutate every year. I will say that the current flu vaccine, which is complicated [and] changes every year, etc., has more or less worked, though. Most years we have a vaccine that covers the strain that spreads, and most years that vaccine, when given to people, prevents disease."

And we'll close with a clarification on bird flu and a possible worldwide epidemic, or pandemic, since there seems to be some confusion on the issue. The current strain of bird flu mainly affects birds. Some humans have gotten it, apparently all of them through close contact with infected birds. But there are no documented cases of human-to-human infection. This viral strain, called H5N1, isn't going to cause a pandemic, say public health officials, unless it mutates to a form that can be easily spread from one person to another. If it does mutate — and it may or may not — then it might cause a pandemic. But even if we're lucky this time, experts say a global pandemic -- like the 1918 flu that killed tens of millions — is almost certainly in our future.

With all the attention being paid to the threat of a possible flu pandemic, it's important to remember that millions of people are affected right now with diseases that the World Health Organization considers the big three killers: AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Leaders in medicine, public policy and business gathered in New York this week for the Global Health Summit — which was sponsored by Time Magazine and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — to explore why these deadly diseases continue to challenge medical science. VOA's Gini Sikes reports from New York.

SIKES: The figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are telling. Two million people die of tuberculosis every year. Another 2.7 million succumb to malaria. And some 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS. Many people from developed countries believe malaria and TB are curable and can be controlled. But malaria has become resistant to mainstay forms of treatment, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa where 90 percent of malaria deaths occur. The oil company ExxonMobil started putting its resources behind malaria research after employees died while working on the corporation's Chad-Cameroon pipeline.

Dr. Paul Farmer, whose work with poor patients was documented in ["Mountains Beyond Mountains"], a book by the American author Tracy Kidder, says despite its prevalence, malaria disease can be tricky to diagnose.

FARMER: "Someone comes into the clinic, a mother and child, and will say 'Well, I was OK, and then suddenly I started having a fever and a shaking chill.' The clinician is hearing about this extremely non-specific problem. The drama of malaria is if you don't act quickly it can be rapidly fatal. A kid comes in, two hours later they're dead."

SIKES: A U.S. study shows simply sleeping beneath a mosquito net treated with insecticide can reduce malaria transmissions by 90 percent. But often the poor cannot afford nets. Treating tuberculosis, doctors say, is even more daunting. Patients must go to a clinic every day for six months. During two of these months the patient takes 11 pills a day. And the cost of treatment is high. During the early 1990s, New York City suffered a TB breakout. The city spent $1 billion to treat 4,000 cases. In Africa, the figures are much higher.

Dr. Marie Freire, head of the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, remembers that in the early 1990s the World Health Organization predicted tuberculosis would be eradicated or at least controlled by the year 2000.

FREIRE: "And all of a sudden it boomed. And why did it boom? We have a very clear symbiosis with HIV. HIV lowers the immune system. TB becomes a huge killer of people, of patients with HIV, and it's an airborne disease. So there we are."

SIKES: HIV/AIDS was one of the main focuses at the Global Health Summit. Stephen Lewis, the U.N. Secretary-General's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, believes that the response to AIDS has been so insufficient that it has caused irreparable damage to nations where the disease is rampant.

LEWIS: "Everything has moved so slowly and so painfully incrementally that we are indeed compromising the very nature of some of these states. And if I were predicting, I would say that by 2015 or 2020, three or four countries will be struggling for survival and they may lose. Just think of it if you will, we now have a country like Zambia where the life expectancy is 30."

SIKES: But good news also came out of the conference. The pharmaceutical company Bayer is researching a drug that may cut the treatment time for tuberculosis down to two months, with patients taking only one pill a week. Two other drug manufacturers, Merck and Bristol Meyers-Squibb, after conducting successful tests on monkeys, are teaming up with a non-profit institute to develop a vaginal gel, which would protect women from HIV infection if their partners refuse to wear condoms. According to the companies such a gel could prevent 2.5 million infections over three years.

During three days of discussing current pandemics, the summit also addressed the next potential plague, avian flu. Although many assailed the world's lack of preparation, Stephen Lewis was hopeful the medical community has learned something.

LEWIS: "I think the lesson of AIDS for the avian flu is that unless you respond instantaneously on an emergency basis it engulfs you. It grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. And the preparations now being done for the avian flu, at least the heightened consciousness, I hope is explained in part by the sense of the failure around AIDS. You just cannot take your time or it is a catastrophe, that's the one thing AIDS has really taught us."

SIKES: This Global Health summit sounded a warning and offered solutions. How governments, policy makers and health professionals respond, remains to be seen. Gini Sikes, VOA News, New York.

MUSIC: Young and Healthy

Time again for our Website of the Week, and this time it's an honor roll of sorts, for the Great Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century as rated by some of America's leading engineering professionals on their website,

DAVIS: "These are the kinds of things that greatly improve how human beings can live, and it starts at the top with electricity and automobiles, airplanes and then clean water."

Lance Davis is executive officer of the National Academy of Engineering, whose members selected the achievements. They are ranked starting with the greatest impact.

Not far down the list is agricultural mechanization, which has had a transforming impact on farm productivity.

DAVIS: "At the turn of the century it took roughly 50 percent of Americans to feed all of America. And at the present time, because of agricultural mechanization, it only takes two percent of Americans to feed the rest of the country and, as a matter of fact, feed a large part of the rest of the world also."

For each of the 20 greatest achievements — which also include refrigeration, highways, the Internet, and health technologies — there is a summary and explanation of some of the engineering issues involved, plus a timeline —

DAVIS: "Which gives you sort of the key events that occurred over that hundred-year period. Some of them actually, like the automobile, was invented in the 19th century, but it didn't really become important until the 20th century, largely because of mass production. And at the same time, there's also a feature on there where a single engineeer who had some connection with the development of that technology in some way will also provide some personal reminisces about that.

Bill Gates, for example, contributed an essay to the section on computers.

Lance Davis says the bulk of visitors to the site are students, high school age or a bit younger, who might consider a career in engineering.

DAVIS: "We hope so. I mean, we hope that people, when they look at it will realize the tremendous things that engineers have been responsible for and will intrigue them about they can have an impact."

Be inspired by the Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: "March from the River Kwai and Colonel Bogey"

You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

On Wednesday, delegates from around the world will gather in Oaxaca, Mexico, to discuss the global importance of biodiversity. Sponsored by the international science organization DIVERSITAS, the four-day meeting will bring together hundreds of experts from the natural and social sciences. VOA's Rosanne Skirble takes a look at the issues on the agenda:

SKIRBLE: A dominant theme at the 4-day conference will be the interplay among humans, the environment and public health. Diversitas organizer Peter Daszak calls biodiversity a kind of global health insurance.

DASZAK: "If you really look at some of the big diseases that are affecting humans — diseases like SARS, avian influenza — there is something common to all of those. That is, the changes to the environment are what drive them to emerge in the first place. Changes like building roads into forests, trading in wildlife species, changing the way we grow livestock around the world. Now if we look at that process and say 'let's start to address the way we cause these diseases to emerge,' we also do good for conservation. So there is a very interesting double positive benefit."

SKIRBLE: Researchers believe the bird flu virus first passed to humans in the crowded poultry markets of Vietnam, and is being spread by migratory birds.

Peter Daszak says SARS, the highly infectious respiratory illness that emerged in 2002, also began with the sale of wildlife … in this case bats and wild civets in Chinese markets. Because the animals were kept in such close quarters a SARS-like virus in bats was able to move to the civets and from them to people.

DASZAK: "What really needs to happen now is how do we use that information to protect us from SARS emerging again? And quite interestingly these bats are being traded all across Asia for food. They are still being used for traditional medicine."

SKIRBLE: Mr. Daszak says one way public health officials can use that information is by paying closer attention to human-wildlife interaction. But he stresses that any regulation must be done thoughtfully, recognizing that wildlife — whether it's bats or birds - also play a positive role in the environment.

SKIRBLE: Diversitas organizer Peter Daszak expects the Mexico meeting to highlight new research and raise awareness about the delicate balance between wildlife conservation and human health.

DASZAK: "If a virus comes from wildlife and we go out into the environment and exploit that species, we run the risk of the virus emerging. So, the big lesson is let's look at the way we interact with wildlife around the world, whether it is through hunting wildlife, trading them internationally, we need to address how we do that and therefore prevent diseases emerging like SARS."

SKIRBLE: Peter Daszak says Diversitas provides a forum for understanding the complex relationship between humans and the environment and the consequences of that interaction. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Last week on Our World we visited the research vessel Seward Johnson and focused on the small submarine that scientists use to examine life on the ocean floor and retrieve samples for further study.

This time, we continue our visit, talking with researchers about what they're discovering as they investigate coral formations at the edge of the continental shelf.

Standing in a low-ceilinged workroom aboard ship, surrounded by computers, video gear and nautical charts, chief scientist Steve Ross explained how the coral specimens they bring up from the bottom provide a window into the past. Coral growth can be seen in rings — tiny versions of the growth rings of trees — that serve as a library of information about ocean conditions in the distant past.

ROSS: "You know, you probably heard that you can count the age of a tree by its rings. But the width of the rings gives you information about its growing season. You can tell potentially whether it was a wet climate or a dry climate, hot or cold, good or bad for growth. This is a little bit different situation, but we've determined that a lot of these corals live to be quite old. Anywhere from a few hundred years old to almost 1,000 years old potentially."

Analyzing those annual rings for isotopes of chemical elements — including carbon and nitrogen and oxygen — opens a window on the ocean environment in centuries past.

ROSS: "So we can go back to, say, potentially the year 1700 and find out what the temperature of the ocean was, what the pollutant load was, and what the status of the productivity was. And we can do that every year up to the present."

In a conversation with several visiting journalists, one of the first questions was, have you discovered any new species. The short answer is, maybe, but the final word will have to await further study of specimens in land-based labs, after this expedition ends.

The identification of new species isn't what it used to be.

For centuries, biologists compared characteristics of an plant or animal to other similar organisms, not only to determine whether they were looking at a new species, but also to see how species were related to each other. You don't have to be a scientist to realize that a tiger is pretty closely related to a lion, but only distantly related to an elephant. Martha Nizinski is a zoologist with NOAA, the U.S. ocean research agency sponsoring this expedition. Her approach to taxonomy — the classification of organisms — is the traditional method.

NIZINSKI: "Well, when you're doing taxonomy and identification, you use a lot of the old literature. So some of these species may have been described in the early to late 1800s, early 1900s. So we have to look and see how it compares to those original descriptions."

Dr. Nizinski explains the unknown organism is studied with careful attention to a variety of physical attributes.

NIZINSKI: "We'll use a crustacean as an example. We take measurements of its carapace, which is its shell. We look at various combinations of spines, the shape of the shell, the shape of the organism, how it carries its abdomen, the type of legs it has — so there's a whole variety of characters that we look at."

But many other taxonomists now use DNA to classify species. Another member of this expedition, Cheryl Morrison, uses genetic identification. She says it's particularly useful with coral, where the shape and structures can be greatly influenced by the environment in which it grows.

MORRISON: "You know, looking like a very long branching pattern in one area, and then a little glob of coral polyps all over the place in another area, but it's really the same species — it could be, it might not be. And so the genetics helps us in those types of situations figure out if we're really looking at the same thing."

DNA taxonomy uses basically the same technology used in police investigations, except instead of tying a suspect to the crime scene it tracks genetic similarities between known species and an unknown specimen. Although she has embraced the new method, Dr. Morrison doesn't reject the older.

MORRISON: "I wouldn't say it's better. I would say that they should go side-by-side, hand in hand. There are times where things are very similar, that we couldn't tell apart by morphology, but sometimes DNA allows us to separate things that we wouldn't have been able to, based on morphology. But often — and I think that this is when this is the strongest technique — is when they agree."

Of course, sometimes they disagree.

So if these scientists exploring the edge of the continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern U.S. do identify a new species, so what? Chief scientist Steve Ross and the other scientists on board the ship may be focused on knowledge and discovery, but the taxpayers behind this government-funded expedition might wonder, how am I going to benefit?

ROSS: "Usually that's the stumbling block question for most of us, and we say, gosh I'm not sure. But quite a lot of the time we're accumulating information such as, there are biomedical potentials. We're not doing biomedical work, but some of the organisms in the deep sea have biomedical potential. There are groups [of researchers] that are beginning to explore that. That has a worldwide impact. Cancer research chemicals, for instance, is one area where deep sea research has been important."

You can learn more about this and other ocean research missions on their website at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Email us at Or the postal address is -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our 300th show was edited by Rob Sivak. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.