official Washington has been poring over Harriet Miers's long-ago
doings on the Dallas City Council and parsing the byzantine comings and
goings of the Patrick Fitzgerald grand jury, relatively unnoticed was
perhaps the most momentous event of our lifetime -- what is left of it,
as I shall explain. It was announced last week that U.S. scientists
have just created a living, killing copy of the 1918 "Spanish" flu.
This is big. Very big.
First, it is a scientific achievement of staggering
proportions. The Spanish flu has not been seen on this blue planet for
85 years. Its re-creation is a story of enterprise, ingenuity,
serendipity, hard work and sheer brilliance. It involves finding deep
in the bowels of a military hospital in Washington a couple of tissue
samples from the lungs of soldiers who died in 1918 -- in an autopsy
collection first ordered into existence by Abraham Lincoln -- and the
disinterment of an Alaskan Eskimo who died of the flu and whose remains
had been preserved by the permafrost. Then, using slicing and dicing
techniques only Michael Crichton could imagine, they pulled off a
microbiological Jurassic Park: the first-ever resurrection of an
ancient pathogen. And not just any ancient pathogen, explained
virologist Eddie Holmes, but "the agent of the most important disease
pandemic in human history."
Which brings us to the
second element of this story: Beyond the brilliance lies the sheer
terror. We have brought back to life an agent of near-biblical
destruction. It killed more people in six months than were killed in
the four years of World War I. It killed more humans than any other
disease of similar duration in the history of the world, says Alfred W.
Crosby, who wrote a history of the 1918 pandemic. And, notes New
Scientist magazine, when the re-created virus was given to mice in
heavily quarantined laboratories in Atlanta, it killed the mice more quickly than any other flu virus ever tested .
that I have your attention, consider, with appropriate trepidation, the
third element of this story: What to do with this knowledge? Not only
has the virus been physically re-created, but its entire genome has
also now been published for the whole world, good people and very bad,
The decision to publish was a very close call, terrifyingly close.
the one hand, we need the knowledge disseminated. We've learned from
this research that the 1918 flu was bird flu, "the most bird-like of
all mammalian flu viruses," says Jeffery Taubenberger, lead researcher
in unraveling the genome. There is a bird flu epidemic right now in
Asia that has infected 117 people and killed 60. It has already
developed a few of the genomic changes that permit transmission to
humans. Therefore, you want to put out the knowledge of the structure
of the 1918 flu, which made the full jump from birds to humans, so that
every researcher in the world can immediately start looking for ways to
anticipate, monitor, prevent and counteract similar changes in today's
We are essentially in a life-or-death race
with the bird flu. Can we figure out how to preempt it before it
figures out how to evolve into a transmittable form with 1918 lethality
that will decimate humanity? To run that race we need the genetic
sequence universally known -- not just to inform and guide but to
galvanize new research.
On the other hand,
resurrection of the virus and publication of its structure open the
gates of hell. Anybody, bad guys included, can now create it.
Biological knowledge is far easier to acquire for Osama bin Laden and
friends than nuclear knowledge. And if you can't make this stuff
yourself, you can simply order up DNA sequences from commercial
laboratories around the world that will make it and ship it to you on
demand. Taubenberger himself admits that "the technology is available."
if the bad guys can't make the flu themselves, they could try to steal
it. That's not easy. But the incentive to do so from a secure facility
could not be greater. Nature, which published the full genome sequence,
cites Rutgers bacteriologist Richard Ebright as warning that there is a
significant risk "verging on inevitability" of accidental release into
the human population or of theft by a "disgruntled, disturbed or
extremist laboratory employee."
Why try to steal
loose nukes in Russia? A nuke can only destroy a city. The flu virus,
properly evolved, is potentially a destroyer of civilizations.
We might have just given it to our enemies.
Have a nice day.