I can’t believe this is controversial. The debate over whether to publish a paper describing how scientists bioengineered a deadly bird flu to make it airborne—and hence super deadly to humans—continues. The US Government—which foolishly funded the experiment—now wants it censored to prevent the knowledge from getting into the hands of terrorists. Right call. But as I noted in an earlier post on this subject, they should have thought of that before funding and established rules ahead of time if the experiment succeeded.
Now, the scientists who created the potentially Armageddon Flu (I’ll call it) are truculently resisting the needed censorship. But the stakes are too high in this case for academic freedom to prevail. From the NYT story:
The naturally occurring A(H5N1) virus is quite lethal without genetic tinkering. It already causes an exceptionally high death rate in humans, more than 50 percent. But the virus, a type of bird flu, does not often infect people, and when it does, they almost never transmit it to one another. If, however, that were to change and bird flu were to develop the ability to spread from person to person, scientists fear that it could cause the deadliest flu pandemic in history. The experiment in Rotterdam transformed the virus into the supergerm of virologists’ nightmares, enabling it to spread from one animal to another through the air. The work was done in ferrets, which catch flu the same way people do and are considered the best model for studying it.
The story notes that the Spanish Flu that caused the pandemic circa 1918 only had a 2% lethality rate.
The scientists involved justify their work by stating if they could bio engineer the mutations, the same mutations could happen in nature. True, as to possibility, but extremely unlikely as to actuality. The scientists intelligently designed the mutations to effectuate a specific purpose. That isn’t how natural selection works. Besides, sometimes you have to use common sense. The dangers of creating a potential catstrophe far outweigh the benefits to be gained by the scientific knowledge derived. Or to put it another way, just because something might be scientifically interesting doesn’t mean it should be done, or that once done, it should be published.
And here’s some real cluelessness:
Some scientists dismiss fears of bioterrorism via influenza, because flu viruses would not make practical weapons: they cannot be targeted, and they would also infect whoever deployed them. Dr. Fouchier said it would be easier to weaponize other germs. Which ones? He would not answer. “That should tell you something,” he said. “I won’t tell you what I as a virologist would use, but I would publish this work.”
Good grief! Talk about refusing to see the world as it really is. Read a newspaper! Every day of the week and there are stories of people blowing themselves into vapor in order to kill 20 or 30 people in the service of a religiously-motivated powerfully Utopian cause. Do these scientists really think that most radical Jihadists wouldn’t hesitate to spread the flu, even knowing they would contract it themselves, if they thought it would destroy the West? Not only would they, but would expect to be rewarded in heaven for so doing.
There are others who might also want to destroy civilization. Take someone as crazy as the Unabomber, but with a profoundly unhinged deep ecology Utopian obsession. He/she/they might well be willing to attempt to actualize the radical environmentalist desire to reduce the human population to under 1 billion in order to “save the planet.” I mean, some have yearned publicly for the very kind of pandemic this engineered flu virus could unleash. Not that those advocates would spread it, but there could well be at least a few crazy enought to try and make it so.
Naivite can be lethal. So yes, censor this work completely, make the information inaccessible to hackers like “Anonymous,” and destroy those altered viruses. We would be mad to let this information become accessible and/or this virus to escape the lab. The scientists who created this threat owe it to the world to make sure that Contagion remains just a movie.