AVIAN FLU: PREVENTING A PANDEMIC A Bird Flu Watcher Develops A Following Through the Internet


March 23, 2006 11:07 p.m.; Page B1 Henry L. Niman is a sort of macabre bird watcher, trailing the deaths of chickens, ducks and pigeons late at night by the glow of a computer monitor in the office of his suburban Pittsburgh home. There, the 57-year-old biochemist keeps vigil over a blog and an explosion of offshoot Internet discussion groups tracking the avian flu virus across the world. Dr. Niman sleeps "a few hours here and there," living partly on dwindling savings from previous research jobs. He recently shifted his schedule toward the Asian time zones to keep up with the fast-moving bird flu developments in the region.

While he hasn't published a peer-reviewed paper since the mid-1990s, Dr. Niman says that he hopes his time trolling the Web "will pave the way for rapid acceptance" by the scientific community of his theories about how the virus is evolving. On Web message boards he has been called everything from "a Churchill of our times" to a "gonzo scientist."

But in the World Wide Web of bird flu addicts, Dr. Niman is famous. PREVENTING A PANDEMIC 1 • See an FAQ on avian flu2, an interactive global map3 and track the latest developments in the Avian Flu News Tracker4. • Plus, see complete coverage5. As a global team of top scientists stalks the avian influenza virus in hopes of staving off a human pandemic, a parallel universe of nonprofessional laptop sleuths — fostered in part by Dr. Niman's many Web postings — is racing to beat them at their own game.

These amateur detectives are supercharged by a mix of conviction, fear, distrust of authority, and old-fashioned competitive spirit. They believe mainstream scientists are missing important clues about the virus's evolution — and that's why ordinary citizens have to take the lead. So they are scanning news reports from various countries trying to figure out how the virus is mutating and whether there have been clusters of bird flu cases in humans.

Such a grouping could indicate the beginning of a pandemic since the virus would be spreading from person to person. "I'm just a housewife, but I've been obsessed with this," says a 49-year-old mother of two daughters from outside Hershey, Pa. She asked not to be identified by name so her neighbors wouldn't think she was "goofy." She started following bird flu on the Internet a little over a year ago, when she was researching the proper dosage of a flu medication for her daughters. She has spent hours each day tracking the latest developments on the Web. She has theorized that India will spark the pandemic. "I know it's strange, and I know it's not normal, but I just can't seem to break away from it," this woman says.

Dr. Niman hasn't formally recruited any of his followers; he doesn't direct their research and he certainly doesn't issue orders. His relationship with his acolytes is informal and even a bit distant. He posts commentary about bird flu on his company's Web site, and frequently contributes to various bird flu discussion groups. The amateurs take it from there. "It has brought together a fairly diverse group," Dr. Niman says of his Web postings. "These are people who just became more concerned about what is going on."

The Internet is infamous for fostering obsessions and pseudo-science of all kinds. But the prospect of a bird flu pandemic has an apocalyptic quality that can quickly breed fear and distrust. H5N1, the strain of avian influenza that worries health experts the most, has killed millions of birds across Asia and has now spread into Europe and Africa. The virus can pass from birds to humans through close contact, but some scientists warn that a single mutation could make it readily transmissible among people as well, killing millions around the world in a matter of months.

That even the professional bird flu experts are sometimes reduced to conjecture spurs still more second-guessing among Dr. Niman's troops. It also highlights what some see as the import of Dr. Niman's mission. Dr. Niman is "a natural-born celebrity, brilliant but weird," someone going by the name Montanan writes of Dr. Niman on a bird flu blog. "And he is emerging as a 'blog star.' Whether you love him, hate him or are neutral, you can't ignore him." Dr. Niman first turned his attention to bird flu in 2003, and has since joined curevents.com, one of several sites with bird flu discussion groups. The activity on such sites has surged in recent months. The forum had 8,361 discussion "threads" and 116,014 posts as of yesterday. "Go after them NIMAN! damn I am sick and tired of the run around about H2H!" a bird flu blogger with the screen name monkeyeyes2 wrote on a similar site, referring to the World Health Organization's attention to the possibility of broad human-to-human infection. Since graduating from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with a doctorate in biochemistry, Dr. Niman has had several jobs in the sciences, the last of which was a research job at Shriners Burn Center in Boston, where he was also affiliated with Harvard Medical School. He says he left to found his own business, Recombinomics Inc., in the hope of eventually developing vaccines.

He has raised around $75,000 from a couple of investors so far, he says. "Right now it's mostly me and the patent attorneys," he says of his company, adding that he is trying to secure some laboratory space in Baltimore. So far Dr. Niman's company hasn't made any bird flu vaccines, but it has filed for patents on a method he thinks could work. The idea is to try to predict the ways in which a virus will mutate. Since part of the problem with seasonal influenza is that the virus changes every year, scientists have to wait until a strain emerges before they can make a vaccine. Dr. Niman thinks flu viruses are swapping chunks of genetic material with one another when they infect the same host, spawning mutant strains of the virus. He thinks he can forecast what a new strain will look like because different viral strains, he says, exchange genetic information in predictable ways. Theoretically, this method could be used to develop a vaccine for a rapidly evolving virus, he says.

He is pushing his theory relentlessly on the Web, and is trying to win followers who support so-called recombination, and thus generate business for his start-up vaccine company. Meanwhile, Dr. Niman has forced at least some mainstream scientists to take a look at his ideas. He has suggested a theory about pig influenza viruses in South Korea that the World Health Organization felt compelled to look into, at Dr. Niman's constant urging, lest it miss an important clue. But Klaus Stöhr, a bird flu expert at the WHO, calls the Niman leads "far-fetched," saying this was putting it "diplomatically." And last March, the prominent journal Science wrote an article about the claims, titled "Experts Dismiss Pig Flu Scare as Nonsense." A map on Dr. Niman's Web site tracks bird flu's spread across the world. At numerous points in the complex evolution of the bird flu virus, Dr. Niman has said that human-to-human transmission has occurred, suggesting that a pandemic was around the corner. In February of last year, Dr. Niman wrote: "The flu pandemic of 2005 has clearly begun." He said in a recent telephone interview that "'begun' didn't mean that people were going to be dropping dead, but that we had moved to another phase, that it was more efficiently transmitted." "Niman pours forth a veritable stream-of-consciousness series of commentaries, taking news tidbits from here and there and concocting some truths, and a generous helping of pure baloney," wrote Martin Williams, of Hong Kong, on his blog that covers H5N1.

"He's just prolific," Dr. Williams said later in a phone conversation. "It's just scaremongering. People like to read it and get excited."

"That's utter nonsense," Dr. Niman says in response, adding that the criticism stems from a disagreement the two had over whether migratory birds are responsible for the spread of the virus around the world. Dr. Niman says he's not bothered by his critics. "They don't really argue the science," he says. "They basically do personal attacks." Dr. Niman's Internet shock troops have adopted a division of labor, organizing themselves into groups dedicated to translating Chinese news reports and responsible for illustrating the spread of the disease across Asia with sophisticated maps.

For example, Gaudia Ray Sarna, of Ojai, Calif., a Stanford law school graduate, claims to have done "the first academic analysis of the Old Testament's Tenth Plague," describing the plague "and the facts of pandemic flu as we know them now, from 1918 and from London 1665." The study is titled "Why smear blood on the doorposts?"

And a British flu watcher emailed Dr. Niman to alert him to several species of dead birds piling up outside the Briton's house, as well as a dead fox in a pile of magpies. "I find the reactions he gets and the intensity of scrutiny we give him most entertaining," writes the blogger Montanan. "He is both a scientist and a dramatist. And we definitely are a willing audience."