October 14, 2005
Bird Flu as Biological Weapon?
WASHINGTON -- While official Washington has been
poring over Harriet Miers' long-ago doings on the Dallas City
Council and parsing the Byzantine comings and goings of the 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 American scientists have just
created a living, killing copy of the 1918 ``Spanish'' flu.
big. Very big.
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.''
us to the second element of this story: Beyond the brilliance
lies the sheer terror. We have quite literally 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 the First
World War. 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 The New Scientist,
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.
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 now been published for the whole world, good people
and very bad, to see.
to publish was a very close and terrifying call.
On 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 bird flu.
We are essentially
in a life-and-death race with the bird flu. Can we figure out
how to pre-empt 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
opens the gates of hell. Anybody, bad guys included, can now create
it. Biological knowledge is far easier to acquire for Osama 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
And 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.''
of 1918 flu has the capacity for mass destruction that no Bond
villain could ever dream of. 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.
have just given it to our enemies.
Have a nice
2005, Washington Post Writers Group