Happy Doomsday to You!

By Dana Milbank
Friday, March 24, 2006

Washington was about one horseman short of an apocalypse yesterday.

It began with a breakfast meeting in a Senate office building where, over fruit salad and bagels, government and academic experts discussed the coming avian flu pandemic. "Currently it has a fatality rate of 56 percent," reported Nancy Cox, flu expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "An increasing number of countries have reported human cases. The severe cases are really quite severe."

Pointing to slides of some nasty chest X-rays, she added: "Death from this particular pathogen is not a pleasant death."

Next: the mid-morning news conference on mad cow disease at the National Press Club. There, a beef producer explained why he is suing the government for not letting him test his cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, an "invariably fatal, progressive, incurable, neurodegenerative disease" that can be transmitted to people. The feds say the testing is unnecessary, but the rancher, John Stewart, warned that "BSE is not understood enough today to really come to scientific conclusions."

For those who still had an appetite, there was a luncheon meeting of the National Economists Club at the Chinatown Garden restaurant on H Street, where Congressional Budget Office economist Bob Shackleton was explaining the "high-end" global-warming projections, which have Earth's temperature growing by five degrees Celsius -- nine degrees Fahrenheit -- this century.

"That five degrees centigrade is the equivalent of the change that happened since the end of the last glaciation 18,000 years ago to now," he told the economists as they munched on fortune cookies and orange wedges. "Eighteen thousand years ago, there was a mile of ice over New York City and you could walk 100 miles out into the ocean and still be on land."

Have a nice doomsday? Possibly. When President Bush went to Cleveland on Monday, a questioner asked him about a claim "that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse?"

"I haven't really thought of it that way," the president said. "The first I've heard of that, by the way."

But maybe not the last, if yesterday's collection of end-of-days warnings was any indication.

On the fourth floor of the Russell Building on Capitol Hill, public health experts were so perplexed by the bird flu that they had trouble setting up the presentation. The start was delayed for about 15 minutes as organizers debated where best to place the lectern (Q: "Where do you suggest?" A: "Where do you suggest?").

Once underway, the experts, assembled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, displayed a number of slides, some frightening (675,000 Americans dead from the 1918 flu), some technical ("vestigial esterase E region"), and some merely drawings of ducks, geese, pigs, horses and seals. But the message was, as pathologist Jeffrey Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology put it, "we really don't understand a lot."

"If we take everything we know about influenza virology now, take everything I know about influenza virology now, and formulate a model of the next pandemic, it would look like this," Taubenberger said as he displayed a large question mark on the screen.

In fact, Taubenberger had evidence that the bird flu might have some difficulty mutating to a human form. But that did not entirely satisfy David Nabarro, the U.N. coordinator for influenza. "It's a very virulent and horrible virus," he said. "It has also moved into 20 countries during the last six weeks and I just checked the reports this morning: Overnight we have reports of it moving into the Gaza Strip and also moving into settlements in the West Bank."

Nabarro spoke of "mounting concern" across the world. "We are very vulnerable," he warned. "Most of us, I think, feel that it's best to be preparing to hunker down."

At the press club, John Stewart of Creekstone Farms Premium Beef was all done hunkering. Explaining his lawsuit against the Agriculture Department, he said the government wasn't testing enough animals for mad cow disease, so he wanted to do it himself. Stewart, just in from Kansas, said he was "surprised" USDA had cut back on testing. Sounding much like the influenza scientists, he said there are "question marks today about the science of this matter," and, besides, "consumers want the beef tested."

It was time for lunch in Chinatown. The CBO's Shackleton stood at a microphone stand in the middle of a room decorated by plastic and cardboard trinkets, as if delivering a toast to the economists assembled at banquet tables. There, the economist said something the Bush administration can't bring itself to say: "The problem of climate change stems mainly from the use of fossil fuels by human beings."

Shackleton said the likely temperature increase this century would be between one and five degrees Celsius, and the average rise in sea levels one to three feet. There is, he continued, "also the possibility of relatively abrupt shifts where the climate system could experience a dramatic shift."

The good news: We "won't be alive when most of the effectsoccur," he said.

The bad news: We all will have succumbed to bird flu and mad cow disease.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company