PHARMACEUTICAL companies and their control of drug patents are again threatening the health of millions in poor countries.
An outbreak of bird flu in poultry in Vietnam has killed at least six people. One has died in Thailand and others are seriously ill from the disease. Doctors are worried the flu could turn into a form spread from human to human, creating a pandemic.
The Lancet medical journal issued a dire warning last week. In an editorial it said standard vaccines would be useless against the virus if it started spreading through humans.
A flu vaccine will soon become available. But the multinational drug companies are going to send it to richer countries like Australia to fulfil existing contracts.
Solvay and GlaxoSmith-Kline are the vaccine's distributors. They told the New Scientist magazine that they are unlikely to have any of it left for Vietnam. The US biotech company Medimmune owns the patent to a process used in the making of the vaccine.
Other companies have patented genetic sequences used in the process. All of them will be entitled to payments if their work is used to make a commercial product.
Researchers who desperately want to stop a pandemic are not sure how to continue without breaking patent laws. One doctor says, "You can't sort these things out when there's a pandemic sweeping the world."
Not all black and white
WHILE THE US talks about its war bringing liberty and equality of opportunity to Iraq, it certainly isn't practising that at home.
Segregation still exists in the US, some 50 years after the Supreme Court forced US schools to desegregate. Researchers for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that this means worse educational and life opportunities for students who are black or Latino.
New York and California are the most segregated states for black people, with only one in seven enrolled in a predominantly white school. Whites make up 60 percent of US students. The typical white student attends a school in the US where 80 percent of pupils are white.
Black and Latino pupils attend schools where 66 percent of the students are black and Latino. They often find themselves in the most impoverished schools with little chance to attend the best colleges.
Some 88 percent of schools that were classified as "intensely" ethnic minority schools were impoverished.
Picking up the PFI bill
A NATIONAL insurance computer bought at a "bargain basement" price under the Private Finance Initiative ended up costing twice as much as promised.
The Inland Revenue signed a deal with the Andersen Consulting firm for the new machine in 1995 for £134 million for seven years work. Andersen is now called Accenture. Its bid was nearly half of that of its rivals.
Figures released last week show that the cost rocketed to £300 million because the system didn't work properly. The Inland Revenue then had to pay out £100 million in compensation to people who lost contributions to their pension funds. It also had to spend another £70 million on making the system work.
The extra costs have meant that the system was more expensive than the two bids that Andersen beat.
Despite its name change, Accenture has just lost the renewal of the contract. The company is profiting from PFI. In January it recorded a 37 percent rise in profits for the previous three months.
No red carpet at Sainsbury's
LORD AND Lady Sainsbury were so worried about a "nuisance neighbour" moving in next door that they bought the house-all for a cool £3 million.
When the Sainsbury's heard that Madonna might buy the house next to them in Landsdowne Road, one of London's most exclusive streets, they rushed to snap it up. Lord Sainsbury, New Labour's science minister, is worth £1.6 billion and has donated £11.5 million to New Labour in the past seven years.
Will they get detention?
MPs gathered in parliament last week to discuss truancy in schools, one of the issues they like to attack school students over.
But 639 bunked off the debate. Of the other 20 MPs who turned up, eight of them left early. That left just 12 sitting in the House of Commons. This was the worst attended gathering in the Commons this year.
Ivan Lewis, the junior minister in charge of schools, said, "There is no magic wand to make people turn up."
Have you had too much BS?
SICK OF your David Brent type boss? Well, a new craze sweeping offices around the country is slang designed to confuse and exclude management.
One term is "Seagull", which describes an outside manager who swoops in noisily, messes everything up and then flies out. Another term is "Bundy". This stands for But Unfortunately Not Dead Yet. "Aflo" stands for Another Fucking Learning Opportunity.
IN THIS WEEK 20 YEARS AGO - 1984
MARGARET Thatcher's Tory government banned trade unions from the GCHQ spy centre in Cheltenham.
This was part of the Tory attack on the trade unions. It was also a response to the high level of opposition to the US bringing nuclear weapons in to Greenham Common.
Thousands of civil servants across Britain struck for two days in protest at the ban. Around one million workers struck and protested for one hour as part of a TUC day of action at the end of February.
But union leaders refused to escalate the action and unions were not reinstated in GCHQ until 1997.
"Hey, and our colleague Blair? He's a complete dickhead. He's an imbecile."
"It is an open question whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction."
"I don't think they existed."
"I am disillusioned. I joined a left of centre party which is now right of centre, which I find myself unable to accept."
"I hope that the honourable gentleman will forgive me for reflecting for a moment on exploding youths-something that we have not yet legislated against."
"She took the bird from the dog's mouth and then hit it three or four times with her walking stick. She did not kill the bird quickly because it took several attempts."
Figure it out - £326k
The amount of subsidy the Duke of Westminster, Britain's richest man with £4.9 billion, gets each year for his farm from the European Union Common Agricultural Policy. Seven of the wealthiest landowners in Britain grab £2 million a year in cereal subsidies.