The Panama-US Commission for the Eradication and Prevention of the Screw Worm (COPEG, according to an acronym based loosely on the Spanish initials) had its seventh meeting at the Hotel Caesar Park on November 30, and the occasion provided an opportunity for people from both the public and private sectors to discuss things that unite and divide the two countries. At an inaugural session the commission, which also includes representatives from Mexico, heard from among others the leaders of both the Panamanian and American cattle industry associations and also from this countrys Agricultural Development Minister Laurentino Cortizo and US Undersecretary of Agriculture William T. Hawks.
The main theme of the inaugural speeches was the success that a biological control program has had in eliminating the screw worm from Panama --- there has not been a reported case here for eight months now --- and the important points on the commissioners agenda were plans to improve monitoring systems, expand the program to address other cattle pests and build a sterile screw worm fly factory in Pacora. However, it was not long before a binational irritant came up.
About one year ago it was discovered that some time before, a single animal affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy --- better known as mad cow disease or BSE --- had been imported from Canada to the United States. Panama was one of many countries that slapped a ban on US beef imports while the case was being investigated.
Within a matter of a few weeks a rather thorough investigation determined that the case was an isolated incident rather than an outbreak. But for a number of reasons, countries around the world were slow to take the Bush administrations word for it.
One of those reasons, in Panama, was an election campaign. The ban on American beef may not have been popular with certain hamburger chains or those who prefer imported T-bone steaks to local filete, but Panamanian ranchers loved the respite from much of their foreign competition. Well after the facts were in, and well verified by independent sources, Mireya Moscoso continued the absolute ban. Once the Torrijos administration took office, the restrictions were eased for the meat of animals less than 30 months old.
Gary Weber, the president of the National Cattlemens Association in the United States, was the first to obliquely raise the issue. Pointing out that the USA is a big beef importer as well as an exporter, he said that its important for Panamanian ranchers to know that their American counterparts are looking for cooperation based on science.
Hawks, who went to Washington as a farmer with degrees in agricultural economics and an operation in northern Mississippi in which he raises cattle and grows corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton, picked up the thread. There is sound science, pseudo-science and political science, he argued. The action we took [after the BSE-infected cow was discovered] was very swift, very decisive. Our beef in the United States is absolutely safe. He called on the Panamanian government to work through the issues of bringing US beef back here.
Cortizo, a cattle rancher who represented Colons rural coastal circuit for two terms in the Legislative Assembly before he took his cabinet post in the new administration, responded that agricultural health is a strategic objective for this government, which is for sound scientific principles and will continue to strengthen our sanitary and quarantine defenses. We cant let down our guard against cattle diseases, he concluded.
The following day a group of reporters went by car and several of the officials who had gathered for the COPEG meeting flew by helicopter to Pacora, where a $40 million plant to breed and sterilize screw worm flies is being built.
The Clinton administration had planned a $100 million facility, which would replace a similar one in the Mexican state of Chiapas and produce enough sterile male flies to extend the screw worm elimination program into the Andean countries. But that was cut back and delayed, apparently due to both the Bush administrations budget priorities and Mexicos reluctance to give up its facility and the jobs that go with it. The final attack on Panamas screw worms has been conducted with flies bred and sterilized in Mexico.
The screw worm fly has a life span of less than one month. The egg-bearing female is attracted to the scent of blood to any warm-blooded animal (including humans) and deposits her eggs in any wound. Within a few hours the eggs hatch into larvae with mandibles adapted as sharp little rasps. These larvae --- the screw worms --- scrape away at the flesh of the host animal, drinking the fluids that the cells they lacerate leak, and gorge themselves for a little more than a week. Then they drop out of the host animal, burrow a couple of inches into the soil, pupate and go through a metamorphosis that takes a couple of days to complete. Emerging from the earth after a couple of days as adult flies, they dedicate the remaining 15 days or so of their lives to reproduction.
The males are promiscuous little guys, relatively speaking. They can mate six or seven times. Females mate only once in a lifetime, and if it happens to be with a sterile male, the eggs she deposits into an open wound will not hatch into screw worms.
Thus the weak point in the flies life cycle, and the basis of the biological campaign for their elimination. Bombard an infested areas with sufficient sterile males and the fertile wild flies will find few or no females willing and able to mate, so the next generation of flies will be much smaller. Repeat the process enough times and there wont be any screw worm flies at all.
(The biology of it seems simple enough, does it not? Yet one reporter who was sent to cover the story did not have the basic biological knowledge that insects go through a larval stage, then often pupate, before they emerge as adults. Thus this journalist did not understand that screw worms are related to flies. Let this be an object lesson about Panamas ultra-specialized journalist education programs, which do not include the study of any sciences or arts beyond the narrow confines of gathering and reporting that news which their bosses deem important.)
In a screw worm fly hatchery, larvae go through their feeding processes in the lab, and then as pupae they are are exposed to radioactive cesium isotopes, which emit x-rays that render them sterile. After the pupae hatch into adult flies, they are chilled to be put into suspended animation and easily handled in bulk. Then they are dropped from airplanes over the target area, and warm up and begin to fly off in search of mates on their way down.
Hawks was in Pacora to meet once again with reporters, and to be shown the fly factory in progress by COPEG directors general José Dimas Espinosa G. and Angel B. Cielo (the Panamanian and American representatives respectively) and technical aides Luis I. González and Harold C. Hoffman.
The plant is expected to be done sometime early in 2006, although with a bit of luck it might be finished by the end of next year. Its about 30 percent done. We are advancing silently but very surely, Espinosa said, noting both construction progress and the excellent human resources that have been assembled for the project.
Hawks emphasized the economic benefits. Were not only ridding Panama of something thats an obstacle to animal and human health, but were also creating employment. He estimated that the project will employ 200-300 people.
The construction effort, which is 90 percent US-funded and whose general contractor is the US-based multinational McKinney International, is already pumping money into the local economy. Under construction is not only a facility to breed, sterilize and handle insects without creating the risk of fertile insects escaping and starting new infestations. The Pacora lab will also include the computer networks to compile, store and use biological databases, and epidemiology labs that will, among other things, be able to trace the origins of cattle disease outbreaks by DNA analysis of the pathogens.