Saturday, January 14, 2012

Apocalypse Now: Life Imitates Bad Science Fiction

The plot is familiar to all readers of science fiction and horror. A mad scientist - or the U.S. military - creates a deadly virus that can destroy a substantial portion of the world's population. The bug is released, accidentally or purposefully, and the few survivors face life in a post-apocalyptic world.

Life, it seems, imitates art - or at least bad science fiction.

The H5N1 Bird Flu virus is deadly to humans. To date, 566 humans are known to have contracted the virus, of whom 332 died from it - a mortality rate of 60%. To put that number in perspective, the Black Death of 1348, which killed off half the population of Europe and led to massive societal breakdown, resulted from bubonic plague with a mortality rate of 50%. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed upwards of 100 million people, had a mortality rate estimated between 10% and 20%.

Fortunately for humanity, because of the method of transmission, H5N1 has only infected a small number of people. The H5N1 is not passed by airborne transmission. And while it is a virus that requires contact with an infected host, it has never been passed by human to human contact. It has only been passed to humans by contact with infected birds or animals. The fear has always been that it would mutate into an airborne form transmissible between humans, but it has never happened.

Except, that is, until now.

The National Institutes of Health funded two studies of the H5N1, one in Wisconsin and, it is important to note, one outside of the U.S., in the Netherlands. The purpose was to see whether the H5N1 could be altered to mutate into an airborne virus. Let me just ask at this point, why? What possible need was there to experiment with this particular potentially apocalyptic virus to make it airborne? Did they stop to consider for one second the ramifications if they succeeded? Is there anything approaching adult supervision - let alone common sense and sanity - at the NIH?

The NIH research bore fruit. It appears that the researchers in Wisconsin and the Netherlands did in fact manage to genetically alter the virus to make it airborne and, indeed, transmissible between human like mammals. This from Boing-Boing:

Nobody knows a lot about this research, but, at, Carl Zimmer explains what is known:

They’ve carried out their experiments on ferrets, which respond to flu viruses much like humans do. What few details we know of the unpublished research comes from a talk Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier gave in August at a virology conference, along with subsequent news reports. Fouchier began the experiment by altering the H5N1 virus’s genes in two spots. Then he passed the virus from one ferret to another, allowing the virus to mutate and evolve on its own inside the animals. After several rounds, Fouchier ended up with an H5N1 virus that could spread through the air from one ferret to the other. If unleashed—and if proven capable of spreading from human to human with the same high mortality rate—it could make the deadly 1918 pandemic look like a pesky cold.

This is sheer insanity. But wait - it gets much worse.

Evidently, the scientific process of making this virus airborne was comparatively easy, at least given a full working lab. And now . . . the scientists want to publish their methods, data and results. In other words, they want to put a blue print for how to make the H5N1 airborne and likely transmissible between humans into the public domain where any Tom, Dick or Mohammed can access it.

The NIH passed the papers proposed for publication to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

On December 20, the NSABB recommended that Fouchier's study, and a similar one conducted by the University of Wisconsin's Yoshihiro Kawaoka, only be published once key data and details are removed, effectively rendering the studies un-reproducible. The board can't technically force this. But the board is also a big deal and so Science, Nature, the NIH, and the paper's authors are all listening. That's why the papers haven't actually been published yet. The people involved are still figuring out how to handle them.

So NIH paid for this research and now our government cannot definitively stop publication of the apocalyptic blue print. Moreover, by funding one of the experiments in the Netherlands, the NIH utterly assured that we would not have the ability to exercise government power over the results. Really, Darrell Issa needs to be giving the NIH a Congressional high colonic. Heads need to roll at the NIH, literally.

And on top of that, the parties are "still figuring out how to handle" the proposed papers? You've got to be kidding. How could there possibly be any thought of publishing the blueprints?

The answer comes from Peter Christian Hall writing for Reuters:

[No one in the history of biological weapons] ever tried to weaponize a flu strain—for good reason. Influenza in general is an equal-opportunity menace, particularly dangerous when a strain is so unfamiliar that humanity lacks immunity to it.

This would put at great risk anyone trying to assemble a pandemic H5N1 to launch at “target” populations. Indeed, such an attack would unleash global contagion that would swiftly and inevitably incapacitate an aggressor’s own people. Influenza doesn’t respect borders.

 Oh, well that's comforting. Human nature being what it is, it's not like anyone ever goes postal and tries to take as many people as possible with them. Nor is it like we've had any problems with, say, weapons grade anthrax sent around the country. And of course, of greatest importance, there is no billion person religion in the world that glories in martyrdom and death.  There is no theocracy in charge of a country for whom it is even questionable whether the thought of mutually assured destruction (MADD) would keep them from unleashing, say, a nuke attack. What could possibly go wrong?  Hell, just publish the results in Arabic and Farsi and write Allah Akbar at the end. What suicidal idiocy.

You really might want to call your Congressman and Senator on this one - like yesterday. I suggest you do it right before you begin building your air-tight bunker and start stocking up on bullets and MRE's.


Ex-Dissident said...

Scary but, flu viruses are no longer as formidable as they were years ago. The anti-viral treatments have gotten much more successful lately and h5n1 is sensitive to several drugs. There are also vaccines.

GW said...

Interesting. Do you know what the mortality rate of H5N1 is when treated with anti-virals>

Ex-Dissident said...

GW, did you know that we now have effective treatment for most of the hep C virus sufferers? I mean actual curative therapy.

Ex-Dissident said...

I don't think anyone could know that in humans since there have been so few cases. However, since there are drugs that are effective at killing these virii, then the mortality rate will be far less than 60%. Still even if the effectiveness of drugs will be 80%, then we still wind up with a 10% overall mortality rate and according to your numbers it puts us into 1918 Spanish Flu territory. Not apocalyptic but still scary.

GW said...

Ex-D: My understanding is that any anti-viral treatment would have to begin within two days of symptoms to be effective, is that correct? And are the enough anti-virals in the pipeline to begin to address a pandemic?

whitestone said...

...Ok... let's think for a moment about who basically controls the anti-virals... the same folks who turned a mostly non communicable virus into an exceedingly communicable one. If there were to be an 'accidental' outbreak, who would be responsible for doling out the cure? Do you think you would be in line for it?

Storm Saxon's Gall Bladder said...

Why would the government want a flu that would kill 99% of the elderly population? (I doubt the 60% is an equal opportunity death rate.)