Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Engineered Doomsday

New York Times editorial, Jan. 8, 2012

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.
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. 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.
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.

These findings led to an unprecedented request from an American federal advisory board that the researchers and the two scientific journals that plan to publish the studies omit any details that might help terrorists figure out how to unleash a devastating pandemic. That presumably includes details on how the engineered virus was made and details on the precise mutations that allowed it to go airborne.

Full story
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