, April 2, 2009, by Kanoko Matsuyama — China’s health ministry found more than 200 cases of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, a form of the lung disease that is fatal to half of patients.

The government, which hosts a conference on tuberculosis this week, surveyed 47 million people in 31 provinces in 2007 and 2008 and found that about 30,000 had tuberculosis, Health Minister Chen Zhu said at the meeting in Beijing yesterday.

China has never before acknowledged the presence of the most deadly form of tuberculosis in the country, the World Health Organization said. The WHO, China’s health ministry and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation organized the three-day meeting to galvanize action against the new TB strains.

“China is willing to be transparent about the problem,” said Paul Nunn, coordinator of the TB and HIV drug-resistance unit with WHO’s Stop TB Department. “This of course is necessary to mount an effective public health service response.”

About 8.3 percent of the tuberculosis patients had a TB form known as multidrug resistant, which doesn’t respond to the standard six-month treatment and requires a two-year course of medicines that are both toxic and 100 times more expensive.

The government found that 0.68 percent of those cases suffered from the even more serious form called extensively drug-resistant TB, Chen told a panel presentation on the drug- evading bacteria.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kanoko Matsuyama in Tokyo at


US$33m to fight TB in China

Microsoft founder Bill Gates said on Wednesday his charity foundation will donate US$33 million (S$50.2 million) to help fight tuberculosis in China. –PHOTO: AP (Singapore), April 2, 2009, BEIJING – MICROSOFT founder Bill Gates said on Wednesday his charity foundation will donate US$33 million (S$50.2 million) to help fight tuberculosis in China.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will work with China’s health ministry over the next five years to develop some of the world’s most advanced detection and treatment methods for tuberculosis, he said.

WHO: World must fight TB

BEIJING – THE World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief warned on Wednesday that emerging, hard-to-treat strains of tuberculosis are set to spiral out of control and urged countries to fight the growing threat to global public health.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told health ministers and senior officials from 27 countries worst-affected by the new drug-resistant strains of TB that they must make dramatic improvements in detecting infections and build stronger health care systems.

‘China is taking the threat of TB very seriously and we’re excited to support its efforts,’ Mr. Gates said as he announced the partnership at a global conference on tuberculosis organized by the World Health Organization.

Mr. Gates said he had chosen to make the donation because China’s efforts in tackling tuberculosis were pioneering and their partnership would have flow-on benefits for the rest of the world.

Mr. Gates also pointed to WHO figures showing China had nearly 1.3 million new cases of tuberculosis each year, accounting for about 15 per cent of the world’s total.

More than half a million new cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis occurred in 2007, with the almost incurable strains now found in 55 countries, according to the WHO.

Health authorities from around the world warned at a meeting in Brazil last month that tens of billions of dollars were needed to combat the growing spread of tuberculosis.

The three-day WHO meeting in Beijing is set to see participants issue a call for action that urges governments and other parties to invest more in tuberculosis medicines and treatments, according to organizers.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made a total of US$19.8 billion in grant commitments in various programmes around the world since its inception, according to its website. — AFP

The New York Times, March 2009, by Mark Lange — GENERATING efficiency in the health-care market will be one of President Obama’s greatest challenges. To do this, he will have to create meaningful competition between drug companies, and between public and private plans. Congress’s attempt at market-driven health care offers good instruction in what not to do.

Medicare Part D, the prescription benefit that went into effect three years ago, was supposed to let the elderly get their medicines more cheaply by creating competition between private insurers. Yes, the program has undeniably improved access to prescriptions. But the cost to taxpayers has been 3.5 times the market value of those prescriptions, according to a study in the journal Health Affairs.

Part of the problem was that insurance analysts saw a chance to double the size of the managed care industry. Drug companies stood to collect $30 billion in windfalls over the coming decade. So legislation was pushed, paid for and effectively drafted by thousands of lobbyists.

Proposals requiring the government to use the buying power of 40 million Medicare patients to negotiate prescription prices were defeated. Pharmaceutical lobbyists fought for direct federal subsidy of drug benefits, knowing plans would be reimbursed no matter how much prices were inflated. Lobbyists also prevented identical but less expensive drugs from Canada and other countries from coming here. After arm-twisting that reduced at least one member of the House of Representatives to tears, the bill to expand Medicare passed at 5:53 a.m. on a November morning in 2003.

When the program went live in 2006, a fragmented market of 80 insurers — with 1,400 prescription drug plans — lacked the purchasing power to negotiate drug prices. Nor did those insurers have much reason to bargain, since Part D subsidized the most costly patients at 80 percent. So prices under Medicare private insurance plans for the top 10 medications shot up, and in 2006 the five largest drug firms notched a 45 percent spike in profits over the previous year. After insurers rushed to sign as many retirees as possible at attractive rates, they raised premiums 13 percent. Medicare patients in private plans cost taxpayers about 15 percent more than those covered under traditional government programs.

Then the story started to resemble a Dickens novel. State insurance commissioners complained about a nationwide pattern of aggressive, abusive and deceptive marketing practices by sales agents. Free of basic oversight and enforcement, other insurance agents and brokers manipulated the elderly by falsely claiming that they worked for Medicare, selling unrelated and inappropriate policies, bullying the elderly and even forging signatures.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a few relatively simple steps Congress could take quickly to redeem Part D, and build momentum for effective, market-driven health care reform.

Congress should begin by requiring private insurers accepting public money to offer a plan option equivalent to what the Department of Veterans Affairs offers, at the same price. Another important step would be mandating that the Department of Health and Human Services negotiate drug prices on behalf of Part D plans. Rather than reimburse private insurers for pharmaceuticals through unlimited direct subsidy, Washington could compare prices paid by Part D plans to Medicaid’s best prices (today both price lists are confidential), and pay at either market or Medicaid rates, whichever is cheaper. Deceptive marketing could be combated by passing a bill to allow states to regulate and police marketing. To further ease confusion, Medicare should clearly outline plans with simple side-by-side comparisons of costs and benefits.

The public can also play an important role. While the larger health-care reform debate unfolds in Washington, the rest of us can keep an eye on the members of Congress who may be the most conflicted about bringing real competition to bear. At sites like you can see whose campaigns have gotten the plushest contributions from pharmaceutical manufacturing and managed care companies.

This year, total Medicare and Medicaid spending will probably account for nearly a quarter of all federal spending, and by 2016 it could rise to almost a third. Enlisting real competition will be crucial to containing costs. So before offering a new universal benefit for the millions of Americans who lack health insurance, Congress should put an end to manipulative profiteering in Medicare. As challenging as the program’s problems may be, they do not prove that a market-based approach can’t work.

Mark Lange, a technology industry consultant, was a presidential speechwriter from 1989 to 1991.

The Cost of Medicare Part D Drug Benefits

Re “A Tumor at the Heart of Medicare” Mark Lange refers to an article published in the journal Health Affairs, and states that taxpayers’ cost of the Medicare Part D drug benefit “has been 3.5 times the market value of those prescriptions.”

In fact, Frank R. Lichtenberg of Columbia University and Shawn X. Sun of Walgreens Health Services, authors of the Health Affairs article, made a different point. Because many enrollees already had drug coverage before Part D, Medicare ended up paying for some prescriptions for enrollees that would have been filled anyway if Part D had not existed.

The authors estimated that for every seven prescriptions paid for by Part D, five would have been filled anyway if the program hadn’t existed; only two were new. Therefore Part D outlays in 2006 ended up being 3.5 times the estimated market value of those additional two prescriptions.

Susan Dentzer
Editor in Chief, Health Affairs
Bethesda, Md., March 24, 2009

To the Editor:

Chronic diseases, not lack of competition in the marketplace, are the real threat to Medicare’s long-term survival.

Today chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease are the leading causes of deaths in America as well as the leading driver of health care costs, eating up 75 cents out of every dollar spent. But patients who begin and continue treatments to keep their chronic diseases in check spend less time hospitalized, resulting in an overall reduction in health care costs.

One recent study, for example, found that improved use of blood-pressure-lowering medicines would result in 89,000 fewer deaths and 420,000 fewer hospitalizations per year, and would reduce health care costs by more than $16 billion a year.

As for the allegation of “windfalls” for the pharmaceutical industry, the Medicare Part D program, in its first year of existence, lifted retail prescription volume by 1 to 2 percentage points and increased pharmaceutical sales by less than 1 percentage point, according to IMS Health.

Here’s the real solution: as a nation, we need to spend more time, energy and money trying to prevent disease, rather than treating it.

Ken Johnson
Senior Vice President
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America

Protein factory: Shown here is the structure of a ribosome, the cellular structure that produces proteins. Scientists have now created a ribosome from scratch.
Credit: NY State Deparment of Health

A newly made synthetic ribosome is an important step in the quest to create artificial life forms.

MIT Technology Review, March/April 2009, by Emily Singer — Researchers at Harvard University have built a functional ribosome–the cell’s protein-making machine–from scratch, molecule by molecule. The creation represents a significant step toward making artificial life, and it could ultimately fill a major gap in our understanding of the origins of life. But the scientists who made the ribosome are most interested in its industrial applications. They plan to genetically tinker with the molecular machinery so that it can make proteins more efficiently, as well as proteins that are the mirror image of those ordinarily found in nature. Both improvements could be a major advantage in the pharmaceutical industry, among others.

To make the ribosomes, George Church, a Harvard geneticist, and postdoctoral researcher Mike Jewett first disassembled ribosomes from Escherichia coli, a common lab bacterium, into its component molecules. They then used enzymes to put the various RNA and protein components back together. When put together in a test tube, these components spontaneously formed into functional ribosomes. While scientists have previously reconstituted ribosomes, which are made up of a complex configuration of RNA and proteins, as far back as the 1960s, these earlier versions were poor protein producers, and were created under chemical conditions very different than that of a normal cell.

The researchers used the artificial ribosome to successfully produce the luciferase enzyme, a firefly protein that generates the bug’s glow. Eventually, says Church, he wants to create tiny protein factories out of tailor-made ribosomes. “We want to make large amounts of special proteins that are hard to make in vivo, and are useful for vaccine production [and other purposes].”

Next, the researchers want to create a ribosome that can re-create itself. They have compiled a list of 151 genes that they think are needed for a self-reproducing ribosome, including genes for ribosomal proteins, different types of RNAs, enzymes that catalyze different reactions in protein synthesis, and additional genes not directly related to the ribosome. “We think this is enough genes to replicate DNA, produce RNA and ribosomes, and have a primitive membrane,” says Church.”Once you get it going, it should be able to keep going if you supply it with amino acids and nucleotides [the building blocks of DNA and RNA].”

Once they get the system up and running, the researchers hope to genetically optimize it into an efficient protein factory. Protein products, such as biologic drugs, are now mostly made in vats of bacteria. “When you make proteins in live bacteria, you throw away 90 percent of the bacterial biomass just to get a few grams of protein,” says David Deamer, a chemist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “If you could do it without live organisms, it could be much more efficient.”

Church and his team also want to use the ribosome to make a new class of proteins–those that are the mirror image of the proteins found in nature. Proteins and many other molecules have a “handedness,” or chirality, to their structure. Amino acids made in nature are almost exclusively left-handed. And just as a glove fits on only one hand, left-handed enzymes can only catalyze reactions of substrates with the correct handedness. This means that mirror-image molecules would be resistant to breakdown by regular enzymes, says Church. That could have important industrial applications, generating long-lasting enzymes for biofermentation, used to create biofuels and other products.

The pharmaceutical industry might also benefit from a method to make mirror-image molecules. Unlike biological synthesis, chemical synthesis produces a mixture of left- and right-handed molecules. But with many drugs–the most notorious example is thalidomide–one form is beneficial and the other harmful. It’s expensive to separate the two versions, so an efficient alternative that makes just the desired form from the start could be a boon to manufacturers. Church and Jewett have not yet made a mirror-image protein using their synthetic ribosome, but they say that it can be done just by tweaking a few molecules in the enzyme that joins amino acids into proteins.

The artificial ribosome also has much broader applications. It is a major step on the way to creating artificial life–a cell that can self-assemble and reproduce. Scientists want to create an organism from scratch both to better understand the inner workings of biology and to create new, highly engineerable life forms that can be employed to make new fuels, clean up toxins, or perform other useful functions.

In addition, the ribosome might solve major unanswered questions about the origins of life. “How did the first ribosomes or the equivalent structure evolve on the way to life as we know it? This is really a major gap in our understanding of the origin of life,” says Deamer. “If [Church] can manipulate parts to make a better or simpler version of the ribosome, it will teach us a lot about how ribosomes came to be.” And second, why does almost all life have a left-handed chirality? “It’s a mystery,” says Fred Blattner, a geneticist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Did it just happen that way, or is there a reason we are not aware of?” With a left-handed ribosome, the answer to the question may soon be in reach.

Healing the heart: Heart muscle cells can be grown from human embryonic stem cells, but new research suggests the adult heart can grow new cells, too.
Credit: Cellular Dynamics

Drugs that enhance this innate capability might help heal injured hearts.

MIT Technology Review, April 2, 2009, by Nora Schultz — The human heart has a notorious reputation for being unable to heal itself, but new research suggests it is capable of at least some self-repair. Using carbon dating to gauge the age of heart cells, scientists have found that low numbers of new heart cells are continuously being created throughout a person’s life. This raises the possibility that we may one day be able to use drugs to directly stimulate this regenerative capacity to patch up damaged hearts, rather than relying on cell-transplantation therapies.

Scientists can make new cardiomyocytes–heart muscle cells–from stem cells in cell-culture experiments, and evidence for cardiac stem cells has been building. But it was unclear until now whether new heart muscle cells are ever born under real-life conditions inside the heart after birth.

Ratan Bhardwaj and his colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, used radiocarbon dating, which is normally employed to establish the age of archaeological or geological remains, to work out the age of heart cells compared to the chronological age of the person from which they were isolated. To do this, the team took advantage of nuclear tests done during the 1950s and 1960s, which led to a sharp increase of radioactive Carbon 14 in the atmosphere. The radioactive material was captured by plants as CO2 and then worked its way up the food chain and into the DNA of the human body. Soon after the tests were stopped, atmospheric C14 levels declined again, leading to a corresponding drop in the C14 concentration in human DNA.

The team measured C14 levels in the heart tissue of twelve deceased patients aged between 19 and 73 at the time of death and found elevated C14 even in those subjects who had been born two decades before the nuclear tests started, indicating that the radioactive carbon must have been incorporated into heart muscle cells long after birth. Similarly, the C14 levels in the hearts of younger patients did not match the year of their birth but rather indicated a younger birthday for the cells. The research was published today in the journal Science.

“I am very excited about how they have used this novel technology to get something useful out of such a terrible environmental disaster,” says Charles Murry, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who coauthored a commentary, also in Science, on Bhardwaj’s research.

According to the findings, heart muscle cell turnover is slow compared to other types of cells and decreases with age. Using mathematical modeling, Bhardwaj and colleagues worked out that only 1 percent of cells are typically exchanged per year in young adults. This rate drops to only 0.4 per cent by age 75. This means that a 55-year-old will have rebuilt 45 per cent of her heart since birth. Other cells in the heart, such as those that form connective tissue and blood vessels, renew much faster, exchanging about 18 percent every year. Just why muscle cell turnover should be so slow remains unknown.

Bhardwaj and Murry both say that the discovery holds great therapeutic potential if a drug can be found to stimulate increased renewal of heart cells: “A lot of us have been working on putting exogenous cells [cells from a donor or other parts of the body] into the heart,” says Murry. “But given the choice of growing my own heart back or taking all these cells from elsewhere, I would choose the pharmaceutical approach.” No such drug has been identified to date.

Not everyone agrees that a pharmaceutical approach is the best option, however. “A drug may stimulate a biochemical pathway too crudely, and in regenerative medicine, we need to be very careful to avoid unregulated cell growth that could cause tumors,” says Joshua Hare, director of the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Hare argues that the best approach would be to identify and purify cardiac stem cells from the patient and amplify them in cell culture, then put them back into the body in a controlled way. Some scientists are already investigating such an approach.

But Hare also thinks there may be a third way to harness the renewal power of the heart’s own cells. He is currently developing therapies that aim to heal heart injuries with stem cells obtained from bone marrow. “It may be that injecting these cells could also boost the activity of cardiac stem cells,” he says.

The New York Times, April 2, 2009, by Philip K. Howard — Waste in the health care system costs America upwards of $1 trillion per year. Much of this waste is generated or justified by the fear of legal consequences that infects almost every health care encounter. The good news is that it would be relatively easy to create a new system of reliable justice, one that could support broader reforms to contain costs.

The legal system terrorizes doctors. Fear of possible claims leads medical professionals to squander billions in unnecessary tests and procedures. “Defensive medicine” is so prevalent that it has become part of standard protocol — for example, mandatory pre-operative exams even where the patient record is current, and even for minor procedures.

Like a cancer, this legal anxiety corrodes relationships with patients. Doctors and nurses don’t want to speak up for fear of assuming legal liability, and this causes unnecessary errors. Under instructions from lawyers, they don’t apologize or offer explanations when things go wrong. They sometimes conceal errors in an effort to avoid a legal ordeal. Even in ordinary daily encounters, an invisible wall separates doctors from their patients. As one pediatrician told me, “You wouldn’t want to say something off the cuff that might be used against you.”

As the culture of health care disintegrates, costs rise further. In hospitals, self-protective bureaucracy multiplies. Patient encounters require witnesses, wasting professional time. Patients, sensing distrust, demand second opinions even on minor ailments. There are psychological costs as well: doctors no longer find professional fulfillment and drop out in their prime. Forget productivity — sometimes doctors avoid using e-mail so they don’t have to put things in writing.

Restoring a foundation of trust requires a new system of medical justice. Medical cases are now decided jury by jury, without consistent application of medical standards. According to a 2006 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, around 25 percent of cases where there was no identifiable error resulted in malpractice payments. Nor is the system effective for injured patients — according to the same study, 54 cents of every dollar paid in malpractice cases goes to administrative expenses like lawyers, experts and courts.

America needs special health courts aimed not at stopping lawsuits but at delivering fair and reliable decisions. A special court would provide expedited proceedings with knowledgeable staff that would work to settle claims quickly. Trials would be conducted before a judge who is advised by a neutral expert, with written rulings on standards of care.

With a special health court, damages would consist of all lost income and medical costs, plus “pain and suffering” based on a set schedule depending on the severity of the injury. All information about each incident, including details learned in settlements, would be compiled and disseminated so that doctors and hospitals could learn from their errors. Proponents of special health courts have estimated that the total cost of such a new liability system would be about the same as the existing system — less than 2 percent of America’s total health care costs. One benefit would be that the quicker, streamlined system would compensate far more people, with drastically lower legal costs. Most important, it would restore faith in the reliability of medical justice.

A court that freed doctors from worries about unnecessary and unreasonable malpractice claims would transform the culture of health care. Doctors could finally emerge from their defensive cocoons and start focusing on the health of the patient. Hospitals would concentrate on productivity and safety. Doctors could be more candid about decisions for terminally ill patients, and offer more guidance about high-risk procedures.

This country has a long tradition of courts and tribunals to deal with issues like bankruptcy that require special expertise. Nowhere is that expertise, along with the stability and trust it would bring, more needed than in health care.

Several prominent hospitals, including New York Presbyterian, have said they are interested in being part of a health court pilot project. Some large consumer and patient safety groups support the idea. The fastest way to do this would be for Congress to authorize and finance pilot courts around the country. These ideas already have some bipartisan support: Bills for alternative medical justice systems have been introduced in Congress.

Cutting back on the notorious inefficiency of American health care is essential to achieve universal care, as well as make the American economy more competitive. Part of the solution — overhauling the reimbursement model so that doctors get paid only for what is needed — is unavoidably complex. But restoring trust in law, the other essential reform, can be accomplished with the creation of reliable courts.

Philip K. Howard, a lawyer, is the chairman of Common Good, a legal reform coalition, and the author of “Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans From Too Much Law.”

Public release date: 2-Apr-2009
University of California – San Diego

Christopher Glass, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., is a professor at the Salk Institute.

Could provide target for therapy to treat Parkinson’s disease, other neuro-degenerative diseases

UCSD — A research team from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla has identified a protein in the brain of mice that protects neurons from excessive inflammation, which can lead to neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Their study, which identifies the protective function of a protein called Nurr1 and defines the pathway by which it works, will be published in the April 3 edition of the journal Cell.

Nurr1 is a transcription factor that has been known for some time to play an essential role in the generation and maintenance of dopaminergic neurons in the brain. Rare mutations in Nurr1 are associated with familial Parkinson’s disease, and the loss of dopaminergic neurons – which are the main source of dopamine in the central nervous system – is associated with the disease. Dopamine helps control multiple brain functions such as movement, attention, pleasure, emotion and motivation. The new findings have uncovered a second and previously unexpected role of the Nurr1 protein in two other cell types in the brain – microglia and astrocytes. The brain’s microglia are macrophage-like cells that are active components of the immune defense in the central nervous system, while astrocytes are large star-shaped cells that normally play important support functions in the brain.

Working in mice, researchers in the Laboratory of Genetics headed by Fred H. Gage, PhD, professor at the Salk Institute, reduced the expression of Nurr1 in the brain to see how it affected the inflammatory stimulus when the brain was infused with either bacterial lipolysaccharide (LPS) – a potent activator of microglia – or with a mutant form of alpha synuclein that is associated with an early form of familial Parkinson’s disease. They found that, in the absence of Nurr1, inflammation was increased in the region where dopaminergic neurons are found, resulting in a toxic effect on those neurons. “LPS won’t normally kill neurons, but the neurons died when Nurr1 was removed, so we realized that another cell type in the brain must be responding to LPS to cause this toxic effect,” Gage said.

Working with isolated cells, researchers in the laboratory of Christopher Glass, MD, PhD, professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study, found that microglia were the initial sensors of inflammation. “We found that if we get rid of Nurr1 in microglia, they become very sensitive to inflammatory stimulation and they over-respond, leading to the production of toxic factors.” The researchers then found that factors produced by activated microglia are sensed by astrocytes. This cross-talk between the microglia and astrocytes created further inflammatory mediators that were toxic to neurons.

The second part of the study explains the molecular mechanisms that enable Nurr1 to protect the neurons by shutting off inflammatory responses in microglia and astrocytes. The researchers describe a very complex pathway made up of more than a dozen key proteins. Ultimately, the function of this pathway is to shut off expression of genes that produce inflammatory and neurotoxic mediators.

These findings are consistent with a growing appreciation of the potential roles of inflammatory responses in the central nervous system as inducers or amplifiers of a spectrum of neurodegenerative diseases that include Parkinson’s disease.

“Although no prospective clinical trials have yet been performed in humans that show a benefit of inhibiting inflammation in any neurodegenerative disease, the presence of signs of inflammation in Parkinson’s disease patients suggest that this could be a valuable strategy”, said Glass. “The value of the present studies is that they bring to light a cell communication pathway that serves to protect the cells that make dopamine from exaggerated inflammatory responses.”

Glass added that defects in any one of the proteins involved could thus increase susceptibility to neurodegenerative disease, and that understanding this communication pathway in the brain could provide potential new therapeutic targets to inhibit the production of factors that promote neuronal death.


Additional contributors to the paper include Kaoru Saijo and Jana G. Collier, UCSD Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine; Beate Winner and Christian T. Carson, Laboratory of Genetics, Salk Institute; Leah Boyer, UCSD Biomedical Science Graduate Program and the Salk Institute; Michael G. Rosenfeld UCSD Department of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the Picower Foundation. Winner is a Feodor-Lynen fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Mark D. Martin/Flickr

The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2009 — A more recent post on Conficker, updated April 1, here

The Conficker virus continues to make sensational headlines, mostly of The-End-Is-Nigh variety. Most recent news accounts — most prominently a feature on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday — are portraying Conficker as some unstoppable force which will melt the world’s computers and maybe destroy the Internet on April 1. There’s a kernel of truth to these reports, but just a kernel.

As we wrote last week: It’s likely that nothing bad will happen.

Here’s how we ended up here: There are thousands of companies and independent researchers in the tech-security industry, most of which could benefit from a little publicity. And having read a newspaper once or twice, they know that sensationalism sells. So they gravitate toward a worst-case interpretation of the facts. Journalists, many of whom don’t really understand the technology being described, eat it up. The result is lines like “researchers are worried that Conficker might be controlled by terrorists,” and “experts say that Conficker could be used to launch a full-scale attack on the Internet.”

All of these things are possible. But there’s just no evidence to suggest they will happen. No one knows who controls Conficker, so it could be controlled by terrorists. It could also be controlled by the kid who played Urkel on “Family Matters.”

Similarly, computers that have been infected by Conficker are programmed to seek new instructions on April 1. No one knows what exactly these instructions will tell the computers to do. They could be told to launch a mass attack capable of crashing corporate or government networks. Or they could do absolutely nothing.

Most of the reporting on Conficker is accurate to the extent that all the awful things that these articles say could happen could in fact happen — in theory, just like it’s true to say that this blog could win the lottery tomorrow. But the odds are very much against it. The most likely outcome is that most people won’t notice anything.

None of this is meant to dismiss Conficker. But just as there is a faction of the security world that believes it is a horseman of the digital apocalypse, there is a faction that is afraid the hype around Conficker has crossed the line, and is now firmly in crying-wolf territory.

Some tech-security companies are trying “set the record straight.” Here are a couple of standouts from our inbox Monday:

“Highly irrational thinking concerning the Conficker worm is rampant,” said Randy Abrams, of the security company ESET.

“The probability of a major [Conficker]-related cyber event taking place on April 1 is really not very likely,” said Vincent Weafer, vice president, Symantec Security Response.

Of course we also heard from a few people saying that the sky was about to fall…


There are conversations all over the net about creating another Y2K hype to generate businesses. Another one will not come until year 2038 when 32-bit operating systems run out bits for dates. It is documented here: