Company warned officials of flu 18 days before alert was issued


LES BLUMENTHAL
McClatchy Newspapers
May 1, 2009

A Washington state biosurveillance firm raised the first warning about a possible outbreak of swine flu in Mexico more than two weeks before the World Health Organization offered its initial alert about a public health emergency of international concern.

[efoods]Both federal and international health officials had access to the warning from Veratect Corp. Later e-mails calling attention to the company’s subsequent report that the disease was possibly spreading in Mexico were sent to 10 officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Robert Hart, the company’s chief executive.

Hart said he wasn’t sure why health officials didn’t act sooner.

“They have a lot of other responsibilities,” Hart said on Thursday. “But every day makes a difference.”

CDC officials in Atlanta said they were aware of Veratect’s claims and hadn’t been working with the company.

“We have nothing to add about their claims,” said CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant, adding that the CDC and other public health agencies had plans in place to deal with a flu pandemic and responded rapidly once they became aware of the Mexican outbreak.

Veratect, based in Kirkland, Wash., uses a technique known as “data mining” to automatically search tens of thousands of Web sites daily for early signs of looming medical problems or civil unrest anywhere in the world. Anything of interest is turned over to a team of 35 analysts to determine its significance and to post on the company’s Web site. The company markets access to its Web site to government agencies, businesses and others and has tried unsuccessfully to sell its service to the CDC, the World Health Organization and the Department of Homeland Security.

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