Op-Ed: New manmade super virus? New bird flu has 60% human lethality
By Paul Wallis Dec 5, 2011 in Science
Sydney - A new version of H5N1, the most lethal strain of bird flu, was developed in a Dutch lab. The question confronting the developers is whether to publish their findings. The question facing the human race is "Can science be trusted?"
To explain the issues, this quote from the article by the Sydney Morning Herald: To publish or not to publish?
That is the question gripping scientists after virologists said they had developed a bird flu virus - with a 60 per cent human mortality rate - that could spread as easily as the common cold.
Some fear the virus, if it fell into the wrong hands, could be modified by bioterrorists into a weapon that kills billions of people.
But supporters said publishing the H5N1 study would have the opposite effect, by helping governments and other scientists learn about how they could counter such pandemics - whether they occurred naturally or artificially.
This particular virus was upgraded in the lab. The natural version of H5N1 has only managed to infect about 600 people in total since its discovery in the 90s. So why is anyone working on a more lethal version of any disease? The most plausible reason is the one given- To project the possible developments of the viral strain to be able to recognize the profile of increasingly lethal mutations. Viruses always mutate. The risk with bird flu is that it’s spread globally by birds, and could turn into a dangerous pandemic risk.
A less plausible reason, but one likely to be popular with conspiracy theory nuts, Illuminazis and mad scientists is as a weapon for intimidation. It’s easy to explain the ethical dilemma of publishing findings like these if you assume that the information is a veiled threat or a “clever” hint to those interested that there’s a new game in town in the form of a revived bioweapons race.
(Whatever happened to those sunny days when someone invented a “weapon zad couldt destroy zer verld, already” and interested parties who preferred not to be destroyed simply shot them and burned their research? Anyone else feeling nostalgic for a bit of megalomaniac culling?)
The other side of the coin is that if you create a weapon, that weapon is likely to be used. The world only avoided nuclear war by a combination of fear and understanding of the consequences. The charming phrase “mutual assured destruction or MAD” was the turning point in that particular bit of insanity.
Bioweapons, however, are a different class of weapon. One of the reasons for the lack of military enthusiasm for developing them was that they weren’t controllable. Unlike a neutron bomb, they’d stick around and keep right on killing. They were cheap to make and invited reprisals, like chemical weapons in World War One, where gas was developed by the Germans and then used by the Allies, crippling tens of thousands of people.
There’s another problem- Bioweapons are highly portable, easy to make if you know how, and would be the easy cheap kill option for terrorists, hate groups, and the good ‘ol common or garden mass murder enthusiasts.
The 1918 flu epidemic was arguably worse than the Black Plague in terms of deaths and speed of action. It spread around the entire world, killing up to 40 million people in a very short time. The bird flu, however, is highly mobile. Bird migration covers the entire northern hemisphere and much of the equatorial zone. Distances have made it less of an issue in South America and Australia, but there are significant migratory patterns in these areas too. Human transportation of the virus on planes is also inevitable, meaning bird populations could very easily be infected globally.
The decision regarding whether to publish or not could become academic. A virus is a virus. It’s a sawn off, self-replicating bit of code. Modern labs can run tests on hundreds of variants per hour, and test cases can be conducted en masse. Even the fact that it’s now known that a high lethality version of this virus is possible could already be an own goal for the human race.
Yes, the governments which have done such a great job of managing the world are obviously the right people to manage a new potential super weapon. In the US, the government has been polarized for so long they’ve actually forgotten how to pass laws. In Europe, they can’t do basic maths on their debts. In some parts of the world they’re equally nuts and immune to interference.
Giving a two year old a tour of the world’s nuclear arsenals and letting them play with the firing mechanisms would probably be equally effective in solving the world’s problems. We could do both, and find out which is stupider.
Science needs to make it a standard practice to assess the risk factors of its discoveries. The new technologies are making it quite clear that playing with them is neither safe nor fixable if someone does something wrong.
My view: Don’t publish- Dissemble, prevaricate, obfuscate, deny, whatever, but do not provide a blueprint for a weapon that has no safety catch and no way of defusing it. Keep going with the research, find solutions to the deadly strain, etc., but don’t allow this information out where it can be abused or perhaps even further upgraded into a 100% lethal agent.
The general impression from scientific comments is that historically discoveries of this type are usually kept under wraps fairly successfully. That’s not good enough in this case. A rampaging virus may be curable, but the interim between release and cure could kill billions. Even if you’re really desperate for parking, creating super viruses may be going a bit far.