Scientists have long worried that an influenza virus that has ravaged poultry and wild birds in Asia might evolve to pose a threat to humans. Now scientists financed by the National Institutes of Health have shown in a laboratory how that could happen. In the process they created a virus that could kill tens or hundreds of millions of people if it escaped confinement or was stolen by terrorists.
So begins a disturbing editorial entitled “An Engineered Doomsday” published in Monday’s edition [Jan 8th] of the New York Times1. It continues:
The most frightening research was done by scientists at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, who sought to discover how likely it is that the “bird flu” virus, designated A(H5N1), might mutate from a form that seldom infects or spreads among humans into a form highly transmissible by coughing or sneezing. Thus far the virus has infected close to 600 humans and killed more than half of them, a fatality rate that far exceeds the 2 percent rate in the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed as many as 100 million people.
Unless the scientific community and health officials can provide more persuasive justifications than they have so far, the new virus, which is in the Netherlands, ought to be destroyed.
Yes, kill it – and quickly!
Barring that, it should be put in a few government-controlled laboratories with the highest containment rating, known as biosafety level 4. That is how the United States and Russia contain samples of smallpox, which poses nowhere near the same danger of global devastation.
Put it in storage, why? What possible use can it have? In fact, what was the point of making it in the first place?
We [the New York Times] cannot say there would be no benefits at all from studying the virus. We respect the researchers’ desire to protect public health [an earlier NYT article offers further ‘reasons’ for the research]. But the consequences, should the virus escape, are too devastating to risk.
To make matters worse (perhaps) the research is also about to be published. Click here to read a report [from Dec 20th 2011] from Erasmus Medical Centre.
1 From an article entitled “An Engineered Doomsday” published by the New York Times on January 8, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/opinion/sunday/an-engineered-doomsday.html