Swine-flu panic may be passé now, but back before anyone knew what the scary new flu was going to do—back before anyone really even knew that there was a panic-worthy flu circulating in Mexico—a secretive start-up in Kirkland called Veratect thought something was amiss.

On April 6, the company, which uses a combination of "proprietary artificial intelligence systems" and standard online search tools to scour the web for signs of brewing global calamity, spotted indications of an unusual respiratory illness spreading in the Veracruz region of Mexico. This was a full 18 days before the World Health Organization, on April 24, would post its first public warning about the virus.

On April 16 and 17, according to Jessica Luhrs, a spokeswoman for Veratect, the company sent "automated e-mail alerts" to the Centers for Disease Control telling it about the illness—which suggests that the CDC is among many federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private companies that pay Veratect to give them early warnings about everything from emerging diseases to civil unrest.

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Luhrs would not specifically comment on much of the company's operations, saying information about its methods and clients is proprietary. Still, she was able to fill in some of the early-detection timeline: "On April 20 and thereafter, Veratect then worked to make [our] reports available to the Emergency Operations Center and Global Disease Detection Center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as to WHO, the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), and several other state and foreign governments," she wrote in an e-mail. The company also launched a Twitter feed that has been thoroughly chronicling the spread of swine flu and its attendant panic, from Wisconsin (May 5: "Two new cases of influenza A [H1N1] confirmed by CDC in Ozaukee and Sheboygan counties; five cases statewide") to Sudan (May 2: "15 Swine Farms Burned; Minister of Health Assures That Country Is Free of Influenza A [H1N1]").

How does Veratect, launched in 2007 and reportedly backed by Benaroya Capital among other investors, plan to make money? By taking credit when it spots an outbreak such as this one—which encourages more paid subscribers—and continuing to use its custom-designed search engine, multilingual analysts, and top-secret web-stalking methods to keep a virtual eye on people, animals, and what Luhrs cryptically described as "disease-related events." Is Veratect tracking every single whiny Facebook status update posted with the words "sick" and "flu" in it? "Proprietary information," Luhrs replied. recommended