I've been catching up on the kind of reading that one does while waiting for a pot of water to boil (without, of course, preventing boiling by watching the pot) or while waiting at Jiffy Lube for the guy to come out and sell you all kinds of maintenance procedures that you may or may not actually "need" before he finally does what you came for: Having dangerous the dangerous and toxic oil changed in your dangerous and toxic car. Now I don't know what you read while doing this sort of thing, but sometimes I read the paper version of Chemical and Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society, which is sort of the pop news magazine for chemists.
The January 9, 2012 edition had a fun editorial, entitled, "The A(H5N1) Conundrum."
Here's a link to it: The A(H5N1) Conundrum
Here's the (scary) opening paragraphs:
Are there some experiments that should never be carried out? Is there some knowledge that is too dangerous for humans to possess? Can the dissemination of knowledge, once it has been discovered, be limited to only a few people?Bioterrorists...do tell...
These are some of the questions being raised by two papers from two virology groups that created an avian H5N1[A(H5N1)] influenza virus that is easily transmissible from mammal to mammal through the air. A federal advisory board has taken the unprecedented step of asking the journals Science and Nature not to publish details of the work to prevent them from becoming known to would-be bioterrorists (C&EN, Jan. 2, page 9).
A(H5N1) doesn’t usually infect humans. Of the 600 or so humans who have contracted the virus in the past decade, apparently directly from infected birds, about 60% died, a rate frighteningly higher than the estimated 2% who died after contracting the Spanish flu in the devastating 1918 epidemic that killed 20 million people worldwide. The saving grace of A(H5N1), so far, is that it does not pass from human to human through the air.But apparently the newly designed variant of the virus has been demonstrated to pass from, um, ferret to ferret via the air.
Crazy? More below...
The work under review, done at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and coworkers and at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by Ron Fouchier and coworkers, was designed to find out whether A(H5N1) could evolve the ability to spread between mammals through the air. Fouchier presented some details of the work at a conference in Europe in September 2011. From sketchy press reports it appears that infecting one ferret—the mammal model of choice for studying flu virus transmissibility among humans—with A(H5N1) and then taking virus from the infected ferret and infecting another eventually led to an A(H5N1) that could be transmitted from one ferret to another in an adjacent cage through the air. It’s been reported that a total of five mutations in the viral genome led to the air-transmissible A(H5N1).Eureka! Success!
...Um, um, um...wait a minute...um...um...
Some experts have now been quoted in press reports arguing that the research should never have been carried out in the first place, that creation of the transmissible A(H5N1) was irresponsible...And now for the editorial part (the opinions being those not necessarily of me but rather Rudy M. Baum, editor of Chemical and Engineering News), continuing from the sentense above:
That’s an untenable position. If there is a set of mutations that will make A(H5N1) transmissible among humans, then that set of mutations will one day occur in the wild. Better to know what those mutations are and be on the lookout for them in wild strains than to become aware of them once a pandemic has broken out. And if this is a virus we will someday face, it would be a good idea to begin to study its weaknesses.The editorial concludes:
More complicated is the question of who should have access to the details of the work. After the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) requested that details regarding the scientific methodology and specific viral mutations be deleted from the papers before they were published, Bruce M. Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, put out a statement that said, in part, that the transmissible A(H5N1) “is sensitive to antivirals and to certain vaccine candidates and knowledge about it could well be essential for speeding the developments of new treatments to combat this lethal form of influenza.” He continued that, while supporting the work of NSABB, “Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers” and that the journal’s final decision would be heavily dependent on the U.S. government setting out a plan for making the information available to such scientists...
...The idea of a terrorist trying to turn A(H5N1) into a weapon is scary. What’s more scary is the certainty that someday, somewhere, an air-transmissible A(H5N1) is going to emerge in the wild. When it does, we’d better be ready....Well then, there you have it.
Now, if you must know, scientists went into Alaska not too long ago and exhumed the bodies of Inuits who died from the 1918-1919 flu, which killed between 50 million and 100 million people around the world, making it roughly comparable (at least in absolute numbers if not percentage terms) to the bubonic plague in how deadly it was. The flu was actually as deadly as the war that ended just around the time that it broke out. It was, in fact, nearly as deadly as the great oil war that took place between 1941 and 1945, sometimes referred to as "World War II." Upon locating the bodies of Inuit frozen in tundra for a little less than a century, the scientists isolated the virus responsible for the great epidemic. Then they sequenced its genome.
This sequence is therefore known and, in theory at least, is amenable to synthesis.
Anyone who is familiar with my work, of course, will recognize almost immediately that in pointing out this little conundrum, I have an agenda which is related to the question of selective attention.
But if you are not familiar with my writings, well, I'll leave the matter to your imagination for now, only to say that molecular biology, including the molecular biology of viruses, has proved to be a great boon to the human race, irrespective of the parochial concerns of those who see terrorist conspiracies everywhere they look.
Terrorism, it must be said, will never represent the risk that ignorance does.
Have a nice evening.