“Unconfirmed reports that more than 120 people have died from the avian flu in western China increase concerns–and significantly raise the stakes–of a Chinese government cover-up. If true, the consequences could be grave.”
So began a June 2005 e-mail dispatched by two renowned Asia watchers at the Manhattan-based Eurasia Group, a private intelligence shop that monitors the globe for impending political crises and has a history of spotting disease outbreaks before the world press. More than 100 deaths was “grave” because such a high fatality rate suggested that avian flu had mutated out of its zoonotic state (spreading among birds and livestock) and was being transmitted human-to-human: the requisite stepping-stone to a global pandemic.
The analysts discovered the China rumor during their regular scans of non-English web sites, user groups, and blogs. A Chinese-language site called Boxun.com, or Abundant News, purportedly maintained by Chinese dissidents, had initially reported the deaths. Its authors claimed the Chinese government had prohibited the media and health monitors from traveling to the outbreak site, the rural Gangcha County in China’s second poorest province, Qinghai. Boxun also claimed that authorities had quarantined 1,300 others who may have been infected by the flu strain, known as H5N1, which is the pathological descendent of the 1918 strain that killed more than 600,000 people in the United States.