Now this is how the story is being framed.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden says he's advising his own family to stay off commercial airlines and even subways because of the new swine flu.
Biden said Thursday if one person sneezes on a confined aircraft, "it goes all the way through the aircraft." Going beyond official advice from the federal government, Biden said of his family's personal precautions: "That's me."
Now this is the framing even on liberal and progressive blogs and I for one am calling BULLSHIT. What VP Biden said was unquestionably reasonable in the context of advice he was giving to his family on how to avoid getting infected with swine flu and with the caveat he included that he was advocating not taking public transportation if you have an alternate means to get around. I don't think the WHO has raised the threat level to 5 out of 6 just for shits and giggles and in light of that how can it be wrong to say you are telling your family to avoid public transportation where the likelihood of contracting swine flu is much higher? I know I for one wouldn't be advising any family members of mine to take a flight or get on a subway right now. Its a shame that now every time Joe Biden says something that should be common sense for most folks the media rushes to call it a gaffe. I realize the White House made him walk back the statement but that says more about our chattering classes than it does about Joe Biden.
Ezra Klein has a post up similarly dismissing this "gaffe".
But here's the thing: Biden may be right to induce a bit of panic. The United States Travel Association won't think so. It's their profit stream on the line, after all. But epidemiologists are probably quietly relieved by the Vice President's comments.
Last night, I spent some time with Arin Dutta's "The Effectiveness of Policies to Control a Human Influenza Pandemic: A Literature Review." The overview was prepared for the World Bank. In it, Dutta argues that the key variable in determining the spread of an infection is the "base reproduction rate," defined as the number of secondary infections produced by a primary infection. In other words, if one person has the flu, then on average, the base reproduction rate measures how many people will catch the flu from him. Lowering that rate is the key to pandemic response. And lowering that rate requires things like "forcing or urging people to limit contacts, encouraging hand washing or other personal hygiene, or promoting the use of facemasks." Some of it sounds trivial. But it matters. If the reproduction rate falls beneath 1, "the epidemic usually dies out."
Which is why the absolute best case is that Joe Biden did something that's so effective that he looks really stupid. If people actually reduce social contact and cut down on air travel and stay home in response to a single cough, then it's much likelier that swine flu will quickly die out. If it does, we'll all feel a bit foolish over having taken those precautions and late night comics will make fun of Joe Biden and everyone will move on. If we don't, and R jumps up, then we could be dealing with a full blown pandemic and Biden's warning will come to be seen as, if anything, insufficiently alarmist.
This is much ado about nothing and I am dissappointed that some on the liberal and progressive side are getting sucked into playing up this story.