Link (you might want to play some scary music while you read this):
Locked up in the bowels of the medical faculty building here and accessible to only a handful of scientists lies a man-made flu virus that could change world history if it were ever set free.
This isnt an intro to some Michael Crichton novel, its actually what some scientists have done.
Bird Flu (H5N1) mainly circulates in… birds… and rarely infects people. When it does infect people, the virus cannot hop human-to-human. That is, a human gets infected, but they cannot infect another human. Its a dead-end for the virus, and it is bad news for the infected human– mortality rate of ~50%. Its a rate you need to take with a grain of salt, as the individuals most likely to be infected are poor farmers in Asia with limited health care options, but still, with a rate that high, it is something we need to keep an eye on. If Bird Flu figured out how to be People Flu, and People have never seen a flu like Bird Flu, it could cause a LOT of trouble.
So these scientists wanted to know exactly what it would take to turn a dead-end Bird Flu infection into a Bird Flu that could be transmitted human-to-human. They found one potential genetic avenue to human transmission by passaging Bird Flu in ferrets (ferrets are the small animal model for influenza).
Neat, huh?? Scientists figured out how Nature could do something before Nature figured it out, giving us a head-start on fighting a virus that, by chance alone, will probably emerge! Imagine if we had a 10 year head-start on HIV? If the Native Americans had a heads-up on smallpox? It would have changed everything!
Unfortunately, not everyone sees this particular finding as the gift it is.
They see this finding as a weapon.
I agree somewhat– a new scary influenza would, indeed, be a weapon. A very, very stupid weapon.
‘Good’ weapons are local: A bomb you set off in Afghanistan has no effect on a cow in Nebraska.
‘Good’ weapons are self-limiting: An anthrax envelope a terrorist sends to a newscaster effects the people in contact with the envelope. It didnt hurt Osama Bin Laden.
‘Good’ weapons cant hurt you: Smallpox worked to kill the Native Americans because the Europeans had immunity to it.
Someone who wanted to release a For Real Super Scary Influenza Virus (FRSSIV) (which we are not even sure this variant of H5N1 would be) as a weapon would have to be one of those ‘Kill all humans, even me’ kind of mad scientists. A FRSSIV might be released in NYC, but it would quickly spread over the entire planet, and it would effect everyone because no one would have a vaccine/know how to fight it. You would have to be a suicidal maniac to do that.
Not that there is any shortage of suicidal maniacs on this planet. Which is another reason why we should be open about this research and allow scientists to openly study this variant. The variant was made by using a virologically ancient technique of serial passaging. Literally anyone could do this. So anyone could make a human-to-human H5N1. Including a suicidal maniac. Whether we allow scientists to study and publish on this issue or not.
Sweeping this finding under the rug, never letting the publication see the light of day, will not take away the possibility that a nut could take down the entire human population with a H5N1 variant, nor will it take way the possibility that Nature could take down the entire human population with an H5N1 variant. Shutting down this research is giving into irrational, reflexive fears, while ignoring long-term, rational concerns/benefits.