At the end of one of the classic novels of TwenCen SF, the protagonist — an illiterate third-class mechanic’s mate named Gulliver Foyle, bootstrapped by his passion for revenge into the most powerful man in the solar system — gets hold of a top-secret doomsday weapon. Think of it as a kind of antimatter which can be detonated by the mere act of thinking about detonating it. He travels across the world in a matter of minutes, appearing in city after city, throwing slugs of the stuff into the hands of astonished and uncomprehending crowds and vanishing again. Finally the authorities catch up with him: “Do you know what you’ve done?” they ask, horrified by the utter impossibility of stuffing the genie back in the bottle.
He does: “I’ve handed life and death back to the people who do the living and the dying.”
We are approaching such a moment now, I think. I’m speaking, of course, about the new gengineered ferret-killing — and potentially, people-decimating — variant of H5N1. And call me crazy, but I hope the people with their hands on that button take their lead from Gully Foyle.
For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t been following, here’s the story so far: your garden-variety bird flu has always been a bug that combines a really nasty mortality rate (>50%) with fairly pathetic transmission, at least among us bipeds (it doesn’t spread person-to-person; human victims generally get it from contact with infected birds). But influenza’s a slippery bitch, always mutating (which is why you keep hearing about new strains of flu every year); so Ron Fouchier, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, and assorted colleagues set out to poke H5N1 with a stick and see what it might take to turn it into something really nasty.
The answer was: less than anybody suspected. A few tweaks, a handful of mutations, and a bite from a radioactive spider turned poor old underachieving bird flu into an airborne superbug that killed 75% of the ferrets it infected. (Apparently ferrets are the go-to human analogues for this sort of thing. I did not know that.) By way of comparison, the Spanish Flu — which took out somewhere between 50-100 million people back in 1918 — had a mortality rate of maybe 3%.
When Fouchier and Kawaoka’s teams went to publish these findings, the birdshit really hit the fan. The papers passed through the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity en route to Science and Nature; and that august body strongly suggested that all how-to details be redacted prior to publication. Never mind that the very foundation of the scientific method involves replication of results, which in turn depends upon precise and accurate description of methodology: those very methodological details, the board warned, “could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”
Both Science and Nature have delayed publication of the scorching spuds while the various parties figure out what to do. Fouchier and Kawaoka have also announced a 60-day hiatus on further research, although it’s pretty clear that they intend to use this time to present their case to a skittish public, rather than re-examining it.
Opinions on the subject seem to follow a bimodal distribution: let’s call the first of those peaks Bioterrorist Mountain, and the other Peak PublicHealth. Those who’ve planted their flags on the former summit argue that this kind of research should never be released (or even, some say, performed), because if it is, the tewwowists win. Those on the latter peak argue that nature could well pull off this kind of experiment on her own, and we damn well better do our homework so we know how to deal when she does. Somewhere in between lie the Foothills-of-Accidental-Release, whose denizens point out that even in a bad-guy-free world, chances of someone accidentally tracking the superbug out of the lab are pretty high (one set of calculations puts those odds as high as 80% within four years, even if the tech specs are kept scrupulously under wraps).
Right up front, I do not trust the residents of Bioterrorist Mountain. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has a diverse makeup, including representatives from the Departments of Commerce and Energy, Justice, the Interior — and oh, Defense and our old friends at Homeland Security. They’ve already read the details that they would deny to others, and you can be damn sure that none of them are volunteering to have their memories erased in the name of global security, no sirree. They’re not so much worried about the efforts of all who’d seek to do harm; they’re really only worried about what the other guys might do. Anyone who thinks the US wouldn’t gladly use the fruits of such labor against those it considers a threat has not been paying attention to the recent debates among Republican presidential contenders. And once the government starts deciding who gets to see what parts of this or that scientific paper, you have in effect (as one online commenter points out) “essentially a biological weapons program”1.
Let’s assume, though, that we live in some parallel reality where realpolitick doesn’t exist, Truth Justice and the American Way is not an oxymoron, and the motives of those who’d keep these data under wraps really are purely defensive. Even in the face of such driven-snow purity, suppressing potentially dangerous biomedical findings only works if the other guys can’t reinvent your particular wheel: if either the bug itself is hard to come by, or the villains from Derkaderkastan don’t know the difference between a thermos and a thermocycler. But avian flu isn’t uranium-235, and one of the most surprising findings about this bug was how easy it was to weaponise. (Up until now, everyone figured that increased contagion would go hand-in-hand with decreased lethality.)
Suppression might be a valid option if your enemies have about as much biological expertise as, say, Rick Santorum. That is not a gamble any sane person would make. To quote the head of the Centre on Global Health Security in London: “[T]he WHO Advisory Group of Independent Experts that reviews the smallpox research programme noted this year that DNA sequencing, cloning and gene synthesis could now allow de novo synthesis of the entire Variola virus genome and creation of a live virus, using publicly available sequence information, at a cost of about US$200,000 or less.”
On the other hand, you have the very real likelihood of an accidental outbreak; of natural mutation to increased virulence; of the bad guys figuring out the appropriate tweaks independent of Kawaoka’s data. In which case you’ve got a few thousand epidemiologists who’ve been frozen out of the Culture Club, improvising by the seat of their pants as they go up against something that makes the Black Plague look like a case of acne.
The folks on Peak PublicHealth believe that this is too important a danger to be thought of in terms of anything as trivial as national security. This is a global health issue; this is a pandemic just waiting to happen, with a kill rate like we’ve never seen before. Fouchier’s and Kawaoka’s research has given us a heads-up. We can get ahead of this thing and figure out how to stop it before it ever becomes a threat; and the way to do that is to get the community at large working on the problem. The second-last thing you want is a species-decimating plague whose cure is in the hands of a single self-interested political entity. (Admittedly, this is marginally better than the last thing you want, which is a species-decimating plague with no cure at all.)
Back in 2005, Peter Palese and his buddies reverse-engineered the 1918 Spanish Flu virus. They published their findings in full. The usual suspects cried out, but now we know how to kill Spanish Flu. That particular doomsday scenario has been averted. It should come as no surprise that Palese plants his flag on Public Health, and he makes the case far more eloquently (and with infinitely greater expertise) than I ever could.
And down here in the corner, a recent paper in PLoS One that seems curiously relevant to the current discussion, although none of the pundits involved seems to have noticed: “Broad-Spectrum Antiviral Therapeutics“, by Rider et al. It reports on a new antiviral treatment that goes by the delightfully skiffy acronym DRACO, which induces suicide in virus-infected mammalian cells and leaves healthy cells alone. It’s been tested on 15 different viruses — dengue, H1N1, encephalomyelitis, kissing cousins of West Nile and hemorrhagic fever to name a few. It’s proven effective against all of them in culture. And it keys on RNA helices produced ubiquitously and exclusively by viruses, so — if I’m reading this right — it could potentially be a cure-all for viral infections generally.
We may already be closing on a cure for the ferret-killer, and a lot of its relatives besides.
So, yeah. We can either try to stuff the genie back in the bottle, now that everyone knows how easy it is to make one of their own. Or we can give life and death back to the people who do the living and the dying.
I say, get it out there.
1Of course, you could point out that the US has doubtless had its own biowarfare program running for decades, and I would not disagree. That doesn’t change the point I’m making here, though.