|The Golden Thread
|Achoo: Homeland Security Officials Take On the Flu
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|Author:||Bluebonnet [ Wed Nov 04, 2009 12:27 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Achoo: Homeland Security Officials Take On the Flu|
Oh ya, mon! THIS makes the little flower feel all warm and fuzzy!
Tuesday, November 03, 2009 6:04 PM
By Mark Hosenball and Patrice Wingert
As memories of 9/11 and worries about terror attacks inside the U.S. fade, Homeland Security agencies are taking on a growing role in the federal government's response to theoretical and real threats posed by...swine flu. At the White House, President Obama's top adviser on terrorism and homeland security, John Brennan, is coordinating government agencies' work related to swine flu. At a congressional hearing last week, three different branches of the Department of Homeland Security—the department's chief medical officer; the deputy chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and a senior official of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the department's plainclothes investigations arm—appeared together to assure members of Congress of their department's extensive involvement in preparing for, charting, and managing current outbreaks of the H1N1 (swine) flu. Homeland Security's involvement goes so far as to include the launching of undercover investigations to try to track down—and shut down—entrepreneurs peddling bogus swine-flu treatments.
Historically, major public-health campaigns and scares have been handled by what is now the Health and Human Services Department, which includes various regulatory and monitoring agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control. The HHS Department and these agencies still play a big role in the current swine-flu response, says an administration official who works on the issue. But Homeland Security and its component agencies such as ICE "clearly have a larger role" than such agencies would have had in the past. At the highest level of the government, one layer below the president, Brennan, who spent most of his government career as a senior official at the CIA, is responsible for coordinating swine-flu preparations and responses not only among federal government agencies but also between the federal government and state and local agencies. "Brennan is the point man at the White House, coordinating White House response, keeping the president constantly up to date, and working with the appropriate cabinet secretaries and agencies throughout the federal government," the administration official says. In managing the government's swine-flu response, the official added, the Obama administration took advantage of work some of the same government agencies conducted during the Bush administration to prepare for a worldwide avian-flu pandemic, which never materialized.
Making sure swine-flu vaccine and antiviral drugs are manufactured and then distributed in sufficient quantities to people who need them is one of the government's principal current objectives.
As the supply chain for legitimate drugs has moved in fits and starts, one related problem is a proliferation of Web sites peddling bogus swine-flu prophylactics and cures. The principal U.S. drug regulator, the FDA, has created a Web page that, as of the last time it was updated (Oct. 27), listed 140 "Fraudulent 2009 H1N1 Influenza Products," all of which the agency indicates were being hawked via the Internet. The products include air filters, gloves, herbal extracts, shampoos, inhalers, teas, and food supplements. The list includes a purported "immunization" package produced by a Canadian homeopathy company that has reportedly received warning letters from both the FDA and the Canadian government. Other agencies involved in the fake-flu-medicine crackdown include the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising, and Homeland Security's ICE, whose principal job is to investigate border-related crime. In testimony last week before a House subcommittee, Homeland Security officials reported that a new center ICE set up to investigate traffic in counterfeit goods had "proactively initiated undercover activity targeting individuals and Web sites that were offering potential counterfeit influenza treatment products for sale," although the agency so far "found no evidence of the illicit production or dissemination of counterfeit antiviral medications in the United States."
A FDA official told NEWSWEEK that the agency was running across between seven and 10 new Web sites per week purporting to offer swine-flu-related treatments or paraphernalia. Alyson Saben, deputy director of the FDA's Office of Enforcement, said last week that her investigators "first began conducting [Internet] surfs last spring" looking for bogus flu remedies; she said that recently, the rate of "online promotions" had actually begun to taper off, which she said the agency hoped was a "result of our enforcement efforts...having a deterrent effect." When FDA investigators see a product or promotion they regard as fraudulent, they first issue a warning letter. If the promoters don't comply, the agency can then pursue more aggressive enforcement options, including injunction, seizure of goods, or criminal prosecution. Saben said that most companies comply within 48 hours after receiving a warning letter from the agency. But sometimes, she said, after shutting down one Web site promoters will simply start up another one. "In the past few weeks we've noticed this happen in a couple of instances, and told them that we are considering further action, such as a referral to criminal investigators for prosecution."
While some of the dubious anti-flu products already cited by the FDA seem almost laughable—silver shampoos, super-duper air purifiers, and a "photon genie" that claimed to strengthen the immunity system by delivering "energy waves" (described in this story from USA Today)—some are more deviously presented, such as counterfeit tablets purporting to be the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which the agency believes were manufactured in India.
"Our concern is that, if consumers buy any product with fraudulent claims, it could prevent them from seeking appropriate medical treatment or delay treatment, or offer a false sense of protection," Saben says. She says the agency is particularly concerned about bogus remedies containing silver, which are being hawked as a "scientifically proven" immune-system booster or swine-flu remedy. Sara Kuban, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security, adds that the ICE bureau "places a significant emphasis on reducing the threat to health and safety posed by the trafficking of counterfeit, unapproved, and substandard pharmaceuticals. Because of the current H1N1 threat, this emphasis now includes efforts to identify and interdict counterfeit H1N1 vaccines and other influenza-treatment products, such as Tamiflu."
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