Beware the scientists who tinker with flu bug viruses

Researcher goes too far

One night last week my partner and I, battered by a persistent cold, decided to rent a movie online. We chose the plague thriller Contagion. (If you have to be sick, whats more fun than watching characters even sicker than you?)

Steven Soderberghs 2011 production sidesteps the zombie genre for a scientifically rigorous horror flick, which makes the plot that much scarier. It starts with a single cough and the words Day 2. Its not until the films end that the pathogens beginnings are revealed on Day 1.

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Contagion clips along like a police procedural, with officials chasing down infected victims as the mystery virus plays hopscotch across the worlds airports. Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet play pathologists handling the outbreak in the U.S., while Matt Damons character is left with little to do other than mope after the death of his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow. (You know its a deadly Hollywood virus when an A-list actor is polished off in the first five minutes.)

In one scene, Winslet offers a chalkboard explanation of the basic reproductive rate, or R-naught, which measures how likely one person will infect others with any given disease. The devastating 1918 Spanish flu was between R2 and R3. Smallpox is closer to R6. The mystery illness in the film is R12, which means its exponential spread across the planet takes only a matter of days. (In the real world, other factors limit the usefulness of using R-naught to calculate infection rates.)

You may recall the real-world SARS and swine flu outbreak from a few years back, the two pandemics-that-werent. The overkill from the media and the pharmaceutical-industrial complex doesnt negate the threat of a major plague at some point in the futureman made or otherwiserequiring a coordinated international response. And considering how some scientists have been behaving in the lab, the bioterror threat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Im referring to recent research into the H5N1 virus, the so-called avian influenza (bird flu). As of November 2011, H5N1 had infected only 571 people across the world, because its basic reproductive rate is very low, but killed 335 because of its lethality. In its current form, it is less deadly on a global scale than the common flu, a mild microbe that kills thousands yearly through high transmission rates. Yet recently, scientists have found a way to mutate the H5N1 virus so it is just as transmissible between humans as the seasonal flu virus. Alert the Nobel committee!

At a September conference on influenza in Malta, Dr. Ron Fouchier from the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam proudly announced he and his team mutated the hell out of the virus. According to a December report in Wired magazine, Fouchier said initially the virus wasnt spreading airborne among laboratory ferrets. And that was when someone finally convinced me to do something really, really stupid with his test animals, Fouchier added. With a bit more tinkering, he got the virus airborne and ready for publish-or-perish prime time.

Its just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus, said Dr. Thomas Inglesby, a bioterrorism expert and director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. And its a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it. So far, no medical journal has agreed to publish the genome of the altered virusalthough the precedent is there with the 2005 publication of the full sequence of the 1918 Spanish influenza virus.

In Contagion, Fishburnes character notes that, Someone doesnt have to weaponize the bird fluthe birds are already doing that. Its more scientifically sound to give the credit to the microbes themselves. The planetary complex of viruses and bacteria constitutes the fastest supercomputer in existence, which can evolve much faster than our paper-pushing responses. Knowing this, its sheer madness for scientists to nudge this Gaian software in the killer app direction.

According to a November report in NPR, Fouchiers work is now under scrutiny by a committee called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (and hopefully the investigation includes his U.S. funding stream). To call this sort of research Faustian doesnt even begin to cover it. Even without a cold, Im allergic to the smell of brimstone.

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