Just imagine a hard day at work. A bioogist is on his way home from work on the subway, since this is America we are talking about, and surrounded by the usual crowds of people, pickpockets and muggers. Suddenly he sneezes and his muscles start to feel stiff and cramped, his nose runs a little and he has a bit of a cold coming on.
It probably happens every day in the real world, but this time there is a difference. This time the lab he works at has been dealing with influenza viruses sent by the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam or the University of Winsconsin-Madison to see if they can get a decent vaccine for the H5N1 vius those labs are working on. It isn’t vital work as yet since there is no outbreak of the virus, but they are just taking precautions so that they can be ready.
Unfortunately for the biologist, precautions at his lab are a little bit lax and he has picked up the virus himself. It would be just one of those things that happens sometimes, but unfortunately for the whole world the virus that these two labs are working on under the direcion of Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka are no ordinary H5N1. Both labs have been playing with mutations that an make the virus a little more risky and have found that a mere handful can make the bu not only a little easier to transmit between people but also a good deal more deadly.
It may sound very much like the start of a science fiction film, but this is no mere fantasy to shock cinema audiences. The labs have indeed been working on just such investigations and have found a mere five simple mutations on just two genes is enough to tip the virus over into extreme lethality that can be spread between ferrets as an airborne infection. Even with no increase in its fatality rate, and it is not clear if there is such an ncrease, then should the virus behave in the same way with humans as it does with ferrets it has the potential to be devastting.
The release of such a virus, either accidentally as wehave suggested here or deliberately as a bio-terrorist attack, would have the potential to make the 1918 outbreak look like a minor case of the sniffles. With modern transportation, high population densities and the difficulties of vaccine production that were made obvious in the outbreak a few years ago of a much less inective version of the virus it would have the potential to quickly kill vast numbers of people. It is quite possible that any such release might not just be a people killer but could even be a civilisation destroyer as imagined in so many science fiction films.
If ever there were a irus that demanded the highest level of bio-security, known as BSL-4, then this is it – and it is really here already. Yet most labs that could or would work with it are at BSL-3 or less and even the Erasmus Centre which has created this monster is only BSL-3 plus. For perhaps the first time, we are really faced with the sci-fi scenario of having created a potential planet-killer and yet it is only as the work has been prepared for publication that authorities have realised the seriousness of what has been done. Thankfully, it has been insisted that certain parts of the work are kept unpublished so that they are not available for terrorists but we are stil left with viruses more lethal than smallpox having been made – and perhaps even as lethal or more than the Black Death which devastated the planet centuries ago.
It may be true that the work needed to be done so that we coudl be prepared – though here at Changed Times we are far from convinced of that – but work such as this should never be allowed to go ahead in the uncontrolled way it has done. Governments could and should have placed controls on this work before it ever began and the world organistions should have set control standards long ago. Hopefully, al shoudl be well with this one example, but if we now have such power at our fingertips we need to make sure that we use it carefuly and under complete control.
Sleep well, dear readers, and don’t have nightmares.
- Doomsday flu decision time: The story so far (newscientist.com)
- REVIEW – The Bioterrorist Next Door – (theromangate.wordpress.com)
- Meeting to address bird flu research impasse: WHO (birdflu666.wordpress.com)
- No way of stopping leak of deadly new flu, says terror chief (independent.co.uk)
- U.S. panel defends call not to publish research about hyper-contagious mutant bird flu (news.nationalpost.com)
- ‘Lab-created H5N1 viruses removed natural barriers’ (thehindu.com)
- Reasons for bird flu studies’ publication bans explained (ctv.ca)
- Pandemic 2009 H1N1 virus gives wings to avian flu (blogs.nature.com)
- Censorship won’t stop bird flu contagion (thehindu.com)