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Published: 11 years ago

West Nile Virus: Horse Puckey?

West Nile Virus: Horse Puckey?
By David Crowe and Jim West

Fear of West Nile Virus (WNV) was more widespread in the summer of 2002 than when the epidemic was first announced during the summer of 1999. People reacted by intensifying spraying for mosquitoes, using more insect repellent outside and, in the case of animals, considering vaccination. A woman whose breast milk tested positive was advised to stop breastfeeding.

Some, including those in the NoSpray Coalition (, have opposed these approaches, particularly wide-area spraying against mosquitoes and their larvae. They contend that the damage to humans and the environment from spraying will be far greater than the number of deaths and illnesses caused by the virus.

Few, however, are questioning the reality of the epidemics. The existence of West Nile Virus and its connection with disease are rarely disputed. Nor are environmental and toxicological explanations for the disease symptoms considered.

Questions should be asked – the opinions of the majority of public health officials are no substitute for thinking through the evidence and making up one's own mind. If the virus does not exist, or if there is an alternative explanation, then no response based on the viral theory can have benefit; only the negative effects of the interventions such as vaccination and pesticide programs will remain.

Fundamental questions are rarely asked about a purported new virus epidemic for a number of reasons, none of them very good. Most people do not believe they know enough about virology to criticize official pronouncements. Belief in viruses has become an act of faith, just as people once had unquestioning faith in the existence of gremlins. Like religion, virology can provide simple explanations to the general public. These explanations also avoid the examination of issues that may offend powerful interests, such as industrial polluters. Viruses are, by contrast, a benefit to some powerful interests, such as the enormous public health bureaucracy and the medical profession in general. Viruses can serve as the new 'gremlins', guaranteed to grab people's attention and produce immediate acceptance of the cause of a newly emerging health problem. Belief in some viruses has led to a belief in all viruses, with few people seriously questioning scientists who claim to have detected a new virus, however tenuous the evidence is.

When a doctor or veterinarian pronounces that a disease is due to a virus infection, most of us believe that we have no tools to question such a diagnosis. But, just by knowing a bit about virology and by using some basic logic, it is possible to become an educated skeptic.

Basic Virology

Viruses are sub-microscopic, simple life-forms (some argue that they aren't truly living). They are composed of a small amount of genetic material (RNA in the case of the supposed West Nile Virus, DNA in some other cases) surrounded by proteins that form a container.

Viruses cannot reproduce independently of cells, as they are completely dependent upon them for reproduction. If a virus evades the immune system and is absorbed into a cell, the protein coat of the virus dissolves and the cell machinery is used to make copies of the viral genetic material, to build their protein capsules, and eventually to release these new virus particles (virions) to infect more cells.

Because of their small size, almost everything that is known about viruses is obtained indirectly. In the case of West Nile Virus (and some other viruses) it appears that the science is so indirect that it is fundamentally flawed and may not even indicate that an actual virus is present.

Tests for a particular virus usually rely on the detection of specific virus proteins (antigens), proteins produced by the human or animal host as a reaction against the virus (antibodies), or the genetic material of the virus (RNA or DNA).

The only way to know for sure that such antigens and genetic material come from a specific virus is to isolate the virus from surrounding biological matter. Through a process of ultra-fine filtration (to eliminate cells, bacteria etc.), centrifugation (which separates particles by density through high-speed spinning), and other techniques, one should be able to obtain a reasonably pure virus sample. Purity can be verified by putting a portion of the sample under an electron microscope and ensuring that all particles are the same size and shape. Only then can the sample be analyzed with the assurance that the proteins and genetic material came only from this specific virus. This still does not prove that this virus is responsible for the illness, but it is a first step. Otherwise, all subsequent experiments that attempt to characterize the virus will be utilizing samples which are contaminated with extraneous matter, such as active enzymes, hormones, proteins, various fragments of cells and sub-cellular structures, mock viruses, and other viruses.

Virus isolation for WNV was claimed in papers published in the prestigious journal Science in 1999 [Anderson, 1999]. The process reported there bears no resemblance to the isolation described above, or to the dictionary definition of the word 'isolate' ("To place or set apart or alone").

Those papers describe a very different process: a) Portions of the animals were pulverized (brain tissue in the case of crows, the whole body in the case of mosquitoes). b) The pulverized material was centrifuged. c) A layer of centrifuged material was filtered, although the pores of the filters were about six-times larger than the diameter (0.22 micrometers [Anderson, 1999]) of purported WNV. d) The resulting impure material was added to a cell culture. e) Virus presence was concluded if cell death was observed in that culture. f) RNA was obtained by scraping up a portion of the cell culture, centrifuging it and then looking for short RNA sequences that are believed to come from WNV.

A more detailed critique is available at [Crowe, 2001]. Similar questions have been asked about the existence of HIV by a group of Australian scientists known as the 'Perth Group' ( Virologists, apart from a handful of renegades, avoid this debate because it calls many of their pronouncements into question.

Does the Virus Cause the Disease?

Without pure samples, it is obviously impossible to determine whether West Nile Virus causes any particular diseases. In currently reported experiments, unpurified materials (probably mostly cellular in origin) have been injected into other animals. The experimental diseases caused by this unpurified material cannot be ascribed to the virus. Symptoms of disease could equally represent an immune response to extraneous biological matter or a response to toxins within the cells.

Robert McLean, director of the National Wildlife Health Center Of The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and John Anderson, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, admitted in interviews that their virus samples were impure. McLean went on to say that this could be problematic [Regush, 2001].

The USGS also has refrained from publishing a highly touted WNV experiment on crows, even though they performed the experiment several years ago. USGS press releases to the public were declamatory pronouncements of a deadly WNV [AAEP, 2000], however, privately, the USGS expressed little confidence in their study [USGS, 2002].

Can We Trust The Tests?

Virus culturing, as described above, is considered one of the best ways to test for a virus, even with the potentially fatal flaws we have listed.

The potential for error is further increased by the facile use of antibody tests, which are employed due to cost and time considerations. These tests are even more indirect than the culturing method (described above), and most users of the antibody test ignore the possibility of false positive results, which are possible even if antibodies were developed by injecting purified virus into an organism. Without purification of the virus ever having been accomplished, we know that antibodies have not been developed in this way.

The most high-tech tests directly look for short stretches of genetic material using a technique known as PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). This technique suffers from a number of major flaws: a) Virus purification is necessary to ensure that the genetic material being tested for is from the target virus. b) The test only works on short stretches of DNA or RNA, meaning that cross-reactions with related viruses are possible. c) False-positive reactions are very common due to the ultrasensitivity of the technique. d) The test does not prove that free, infectious virus particles are present.

Epidemic of Disease or Epidemic of Testing?

Testing for West Nile Virus was very rare until the 1999 'epidemic' was detected. Since then, testing has become more and more widespread. Not surprisingly, 'positive' tests have occurred throughout the United States and in several areas of Canada. There is, however, insufficient baseline data to know that these positive tests represent a spreading disease, and not just a spread of testing. It is quite likely that a low rate of false positive tests will occur (assuming that the tests are accepted as valid), and that may be all that this apparent spread represents.

Testing of the general population has been very limited, but it has shown that WNV is most often a very mild disease. One survey in the New York area in 1999 [Mostashari, 1999] found that 2.6 percent of people surveyed were antibody-positive, but only about one-fifth of those reported a recent, mild fever. No other symptoms were reported. The possibility that these represented false positive tests was not considered.

Furthermore, most of the people whose deaths were blamed on West Nile Virus were very elderly and had serious, pre-existing health conditions. The small number of deaths that occurred (seven during 1999 in the United States, for example) can be explained by positive test results occurring randomly. For example, random positive tests will sometimes occur in people who are very ill, but that does not mean that the tests are accurate, nor does it mean that even if they are accurate that the pathogen they test for is necessarily the cause of the observed disease.

If Not The Virus, Then What?

Denying the existence of the virus is not to deny the reality of the illness and death that has been discovered in humans, crows and horses. But, if the virus does not exist then it cannot be causing these illnesses. Virus or no virus, it is still necessary to consider alternative explanations.

One of us (West), hypothesized that much of the disease in the New York region is caused by exposure to record-high levels of summer air pollution, exacerbated by the gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether). MTBE is a toxic gasoline additive constituting 11 to 15 percent of gasoline, by volume, in the New York region.

The EPA claims that MTBE makes cars burn gasoline more cleanly and thereby reduces air pollution. However, for years, its use has been opposed by groups such as OxyBusters and the American Medical Association. MTBE bans have been implemented in Alaska and North Carolina and proposed unsuccessfully by the States of New York and California. Recent concern stems from the knowledge that it has contaminated much of the groundwater in the U.S. through leakage from underground tanks. Contrary to the EPA's stance, MTBE is also suspected of being a toxic atmospheric pollutant, though, peculiarly, its atmospheric hazards have not been extensively studied by the EPA [NY Times, 1999]. However, anecdotal evidence is plentiful and epidemiological studies align MTBE with neurological disease [Joseph, 1999] [West, 2002].

Industrial air pollution and its role in 'West Nile virus epidemics' are rarely mentioned, though virtually all such epidemics have occurred downwind from oil refineries [West, 2002]. The major WNV epicenters in the U.S. are New Jersey, Staten Island (NY), Houston (TX), and southern Louisiana - are near large concentrations of petrochemical industry facilities. Louisiana is the site of the largest U.S. WNV epicenter and it just happens to be the site of the largest concentration of petrochemical industry in the Western Hemisphere. Staten Island has five refineries upwind with three being adjacent.

Miners' Canary: Air Toxicology

The famous 'miners' canary' illustrates the sensitivity of birds to air pollution. Similarly, the recent epidemic of bird deaths could be a warning regarding refinery pollution, yet we are overlooking this sign, due to our acceptance of the dominant interpretation - that a single virus (WNV) causes a wide variety of disease symptoms amongst many species of animals.

Initially, the WNV epidemic was said to have arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the New York City region during the summer of 1999. However, since WNV was never tested for previously in this region, it is quite possible that the antibodies (whatever their cause) were present before then.

In late July and early August 1999, the New York State Department Of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) first recognized unusual numbers of dead crows in the northern Queens area of New York City. NYSDEC and several bird experts suspected industrial toxins. NYSDEC Wildlife Pathologist, Ward Stone, stated that the drought required birds to forage deeper into soils and thereby access toxins in the ground [NY Times, 1999 c]. Other bird experts initially also promoted a toxicological explanation for the crow deaths. Dr. Charos, a veterinarian in northern Queens, was reported as saying, "This is a bird that can live on road kill… so the amount you have dying now, you have to wonder if they're being poisoned." [NY Times, 1999 b]

Though Ward Stone's position was toxicological, he had entirely omitted air toxicology. In an interview, he lamented this, saying, "It has never happened, and it will never happen." He added that funding limitations prevent investigations of air pollution in avian autopsies [Stone 2000]. Dr. McLean, of the USGS, also lamented his inability to explore air pollution causation, again, because of funding limitations [Regush 2001].

The virus theory was announced with heavy fanfare by the CDC and Department of Health on September 3rd 1999. A pesticide (malathion) spray campaign commenced immediately from helicopters. Approximately 20 tons of malathion, a hazardous and controversial pesticide, banned in Japan in 1960 [Jones 1999], was sprayed over the densely populated city within the next six weeks. Mortality rose in nearly every category of the NYC Vital Statistics during that six-week spray campaign [West, 1999]. The NYSDEC dropped the toxicological theory and embraced the virus theory; nobody mentioned the diagnostic conflicts, and the Mayor announced that malathion was "harmless" to New Yorkers.

When the NYSDEC reiterated its poisoning theory two days later, on September 5th, it was too late; the more dramatic theory that a killer virus was stalking the city was already accepted by most people.

The microbiological conclusion consisted of a variety of clinical observations of encephalitis and a few positive serum tests for a poorly characterized virus, initially identified as St. Louis Encephalitis Virus (SLE).

Dr. Charos was one of the first to report dead and disabled crows to the NYSDEC and he was often interviewed. He emphatically said in a telephone interview that his first receipt of dead and disabled crows was in mid June 1999 [Charos, 2000]. He has since confirmed that every journalist was told "mid June". However, the media consistently reported late July and early August as the dates of the first crow deaths. Charos' observations were also confirmed at a medical conference, a year later by the NYSDOH epidemiologist, Dr. Marcelle Layton [Layton 2000].

Mid-June to mid-August 1999 was a period of record-high ground-level air pollution in the New York City area [NY Times, 1999 d]. According to Joe Pane, biologist with NYSDEC, their initial investigation found unusual numbers of dead birds near major bridge entrances and expressways [Pane, 2000].

Coincidentally, on July 27th, 1999, an EPA investigative panel announced that MTBE should be banned or phased out [NY Times, 1999 e].

A sales distribution map from "Oxy-Fuel News" (a private letter for industry) shows that the New York City region in 1999 was unique within the nation in terms of reformulated gasoline programs. The effect was to cause a very substantial increase in MTBE concentrations within the New York City region.

Air Pollution And Bird Mortality

Both avian WNV positives and avian mortality correlate with air pollution in a study of all 62 counties of New York State for year 1999. Data was obtained from NYSDEC and EPA [West, 2002] (see Figure 1).

Those animals testing WNV positive occurred almost entirely in counties categorized by EPA as "Severe-17 Nonattainment", an air pollution category that affects gasoline formulations in terms of higher levels of MTBE.

The relation of WNV positives and air pollution can also be represented by a bar graph (see Figure 2).

It is possible to maintain the virus theory by claiming that air pollution promotes damage to the immune system, and thus enables the proliferation of viruses. However, since the virology is critically flawed, virus theories should be deferred until: a) WNV has been proven to be a virus, b) its components have been precisely identified, and c) through the injection of this purified virus (and nothing else) into animals, proven to cause specific diseases.

In the toxicological context, however, the various positive tests for WNV may be more useful as indicators of air pollution disease. Likewise the tissue morphology of 'WNV' might actually be the tissue morphology of air pollution. And, similarly, the epidemiology of 'WNV' might just actually be the epidemiology of air pollution disease. Thus environmentalists can find some value in the ongoing disease studies that claim causation by an infectious pathogen (WNV). In other words, 'WNV' might be most valuable as a biomarker for air pollution stress.

Political Science

Presently, viruses provide a convenient, uncontroversial and safe whipping boy for outbreaks of illness, since they have been thoroughly demonized in all avenues of the media. Virus causation theories allow the media to avoid confrontation with powerful industrial interests. Those who pursue infectious disease paradigms are well funded and publicized, sympathized and enshrined.

Pesticide manufacturers and applicators who claim they are fighting WNV vectors (mosquitoes) profit while minimizing discussions of the dangers of their products by cloaking their activities in the mantle of public safety.

Proving health damages or even being able to report health damage caused by pesticide programs is difficult since medical personnel shy away from confronting the chemical industry, and they are rarely trained to recognize pesticide illnesses.

A Cautious Approach

Horse owners should be aware, during their encounters with any literature on any virus, that testing 'positive' does not mean that one is suffering a disease. Those are distinctly different things.

Horse owners need not become experts in virology or toxicology to decide whether to take drastic measures such as WNV vaccination of their animals or mosquito spraying. If horse owners just want to be good public citizens and prevent the spread of West Nile Virus, then preventing infections in horses is unlikely to do much good. Horses are not believed to be important carriers, and are in any case vastly outnumbered by the mosquitoes and birds that are believed to carry the virus.

The health of the horse is another concern, but experimental infections have resulted only in a small number of cases of disease (one out of twelve horses). The disease is believed to last only a short time in most horses, and leave no lasting effects. The potential toxicity of these experimental injections using unpurified serum also calls the validity of the experiments into question. Mild concentrations of toxins, such as neomycin and streptomycin, often used in virological research, are known to cause neurological disease.

Similarly, vaccinations can be hazardous for reasons that have nothing to do with a virus. The toxic additives in vaccines have been known to cause multiple organ damage and neurological damage. This may account for the dismay being voiced by horse owners who have had their horses injected with the WNV vaccine. Vaccination adverse effects represent legal liabilities, and that may be why adverse effects are often ignored and under-reported [O'Shea 2002].

Before deciding to vaccinate, horse owners should satisfy themselves that the virus is a threat, that the vaccine is truly effective, and that it has been proven to reduce the overall level of illness and death in controlled, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials over a prolonged period of time.

However, that has never been done for any vaccine. [Mendelsohn, 1984] [O'Shea, 2002]

Important Disclaimer: The authors' intent is to critique medical theories. This article or any of their communications should not be viewed as medical advice. Medical advice must be sought from a trusted and knowledgeable medical professional.


[AAEP, 2000] American Association Of Equine Practitioners: "West Nile Virus 2000 News", November 2000, conveys the USGS press release regarding Dr. McLean's study of crow vulnerability to a supposed infectious and pathogenic WNV: "'It confirms a suspicion that we had and wanted to verify,' said Dr. Robert McLean, director of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center."

[Anderson, 1999] Anderson JF et al. Isolation of West Nile Virus from Mosquitoes, Crows and a Cooper's Hawk in Connecticut. Science. 1999 Dec 17; 286: 2331-3

[Bunning, ML] Experimental infection of horses with West Nile Virus and their potential to infect mosquitoes and serve as amplifying hosts; Conference Abstract

[Charos, 2000] Personal communication to Jim West, 2000 April 18

[Crowe, 2001] Crowe D. West Nile Virus: Does It Exist? Weekly Health. 2001 Oct 3; 260

[Jones, 1999] Gladstone Jones, environmental lawyer, speaking at The National Action Network, in New York City, November 6, 1999

[Joseph, 2000] Peter M. Joseph, Ph.D., "New Hypotheses for MTBE Combustion Products", University of Pennsylvania, 1997

[Layton, 2000] Marcelle Layton, M.D., Oral presentation at "Challenges of Emerging Illness in Urban Environments", conference at The New York Academy Of Medicine, Manhattan, 2000 December 11

[Mendelsohn, 1984] Robert S. Mendelsohn, MD, How To Raise A Healthy Child In Spite Of Your Doctor, Ballantine Publishers, New York 1984

[Mostashari, 2001] Mostashari F et al. Epidemic West Nile encephalitis, New York, 1999: results of a household-based seroepidemiological survey. Lancet. 2001 Jul 28; 358(9278): 261-4

[NY Times, 1999 a] Andrew C. Revkin, "Concerns in New York Area About Effects of Fuel", The New York Times, 1999 Jul 27; Sec A:16 "A national organization devoted to banning the chemical, OxyBusters, … [founder] Barry Dorfman… [said that] a sharp rise in asthma cases around New Jersey and New York City in recent years had coincided with the introduction of elevated levels of MTBE in gasoline. 'Nothing else new was added to the environment at the time, but you've had all these new asthma cases…"

[NY Times, 1999 b] Corey Kilgannon, "At Fort Totten and Elsewhere, Crows Dying Mysteriously", The New York Times, 1999 Aug 22; Sec 14:8

[NY Times, 1999 c] Corey Kilgannon, "Drought Plus Dining Habits Are Doing In Crows", The New York Times, 1999 Sept 5; Sec 14:8

Ward Stone, NYSDEC: "'The crows are more pressed than usual and may be eating other things and digging deeper into the ground for food and accessing old toxins.' Going without food can also release toxins stored in the birds' fat, he said."

[NY Times, 1999 d] Richard Perez-Pena, "Heavy Smog Adds Insult To Misery", The New York Times, 1999 Aug 1; Sec 1:27

[NY Times, 1999 e] Matthew L. Wald, "Agency Will Ask Congress To Drop Gasoline Additive", The New York Times, 1999 Jul 27; Sec A:1

[O'Shea, 2002] Timothy O'Shea, The Sanctity Of Human Blood: Vaccination Is Not Immunization, New West, 2002

[Pane, 2000] Personal communication to Jim West, 2000 May 5

[Petersen, 2002] West Nile Virus encephalitis. NEJM. 2002 Oct 17; 347(16): 1225-6

[Regush, 2001] Nicholas Regush, ABC NEWS online, 8/29/2001, "Virus Or Environment?"

[USGS, 2002] Emi Kate Saito, USGS, personal communication to Jim West, 10/23/2002. "The study has not been published, it has not been peer-reviewed, and it consisted of a very small sample size. … At this time, we consider Dr. McLean's study results to be very preliminary."

[West, 1999] Jim West, study, "New York City Vital Statistics, The Pesticide Spray Period of 1999 (9/3/99 to 10/12/99)" NYCVS1999/vs_index.htm

[Stone, 2000] Jim West, interview with Ward Stone, NYSDEC Wildlife Pathologist, 2000 April 5

[West, 2002] Jim West, "The Dangers of MTBE Gasoline Additive: Its Connection To West Nile Virus", Townsend Letter For Doctors And Patients, 2002 July; 228:64-76

Copyright October, 2002, David Crowe and Jim West

About the authors:
David Crowe is an analyst of the science behind modern medicine, particularly virology. He has an HBSc in Biology and Mathematics, and lives in Calgary with his wife and 3 children, where he works as a self-employed communications consultant. He publishes often in "Alive" magazine and He can be reached by email at

Jim West has a background in engineering science and music composition. Since 1999, he has served as Chairman of the Science Committee for the NoSpray Coalition in New York City. The NoSpray Coalition has organized environmentalists against the city's pesticide spray campaign against 'West Nile virus'. NoSpray, with the help of an environmental legal team from Pace University and the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, is engaged in an ongoing suit against the City of New York in federal court. For details, see Jim was recently published in The Weston A. Price Foundation's journal, "Wise Traditions".


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