Scientists in the U.S. and Netherlands have recently created a mutation of the H5N1 virus that, if unleashed, could kill hundreds of millions of people.
The virus as it occurs in nature has so far only killed about 340 humans since 2003 — though it has resulted in the death of hundreds of millions of birds. The human-manipulated version is far more dangerous, having the unique ability to be transmitted between mammals, as well as through the air.
Disregarding the cataclysmic nature of their creation, lead researchers are now trying to publish a sort of “how to create our virus” article in the journal Nature — which is written primarily for scientists, but will prove a useful read for bioterrorists as well.
Granted, a terrorist would need a team of skilled scientists and a state-of-the-art lab to create this biological weapon, but given how communicable this virus is, it’s possible even a benevolent scientist could mistakenly unleash it.
Because the virus has lethal potential on par with a nuclear bomb, its development ought to proceed with the same caution we’d expect from any nuclear weapons program.
We must recall that when America first developed the atom bomb, they didn’t divulge “how to enrich uranium to weapons-grade standards” in a magazine. Instead, the Manhattan Project maintained a thick veil of secrecy among the thousands of workers it employed.
Today, some watchdog groups, like the National Science Advisory Board, correctly acknowledge H5N1 must be researched in an equally closed-door environment. Recently the NSAB asked researchers to redact the “how-to” portions of their Nature article, suggesting instead they only release this information to scientists who first pass background checks.
But a meeting in Geneva on Feb 16. saw the World Health Organization recommend this research be published in full. This appears to be the route Nature will take.
Hearing this foolhardy ruling by the WHO, I suggest that Frankenstein be made required reading for all undergrads in the sciences. These H5N1 researchers are so enraptured by their apparently miraculous creation that they completely overlook its pitfalls — like its potential to kill human beings.
But the debate over H5N1 research is ethically hazier than creating a zombie, or a nuclear weapon for that matter. Unlike a nuke, humans need not detonate this virus to be destroyed by it. Even the natural form of H5N1 could mutate into something with pandemic potential, but research is helping to put such self-destructive power into human hands.
Regardless of how it spreads, if H5N1 gets out we may all be doomed.
According to the WHO, the case-fatality ratio for H5N1 is somewhere between 30 and 80 per cent. By comparison, the Spanish Influenza of 1918 — which killed somewhere between 20 and 100 million people — had a case-fatality ratio of just two per cent.
Researchers argue that it’s precisely the virus’s high threat-level that makes the transparent and prompt distribution of their work so imperative.
Leading H5N1 researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka recently defended the release of his work in an article titled “H5N1: Flu transmission work is urgent.” He argues his research must be shared freely if scientists are to develop vaccines before an outbreak occurs. He depicts his field of study as a kind of biological arms race; where humanity must think faster than the virus does.
It’s true: we must prepare for an outbreak before it comes. But we mustn’t be so hasty that we inadvertently cause that outbreak. The public may like to believe this is sophisticated science and therefore nothing could go wrong. But the possibility of a laboratory mishap is not so remote.
The possibility of accidents is especially relevant since Kawaoka, like many scientists, is prepared to cut dangerous corners just to win his place in science history. From 2005 to 2006, Kawaoka and researchers at the University of Wisconsin were manipulating the Ebola virus genome in a lab they knew was not permitted to do such research — which is permissible only in ultra-secure “Biosafety Level Four” laboratories. When the U.S. National Institute of Health got wind of Kawaoka’s sketchy lab, they halted his research, declaring his studies should never have been conducted in such an environment.
This is the man who flippantly suggests his research go public.
And all it would take is one careless lab making one safety slip for the human-made strain of H5N1 to spark a pandemic. As if to assuage the public’s fears, Kawaoka says the research might as well be shared because “there is already enough information publicly available to allow someone to make a transmissible [H5N1 virus].”
Even with the careless distribution of their work, well-intentioned scientists probably will not trigger the end of the world. But the stakes — the survival of our species — seem a smidgen high to not pursue this research in the most cautious manner possible. As science like this shows, humans have an ever-accelerating ability to perform feats once unimaginable. Whether these feats are miraculously good or unspeakably bad is our choice to make.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons