The Washington Post asks, “Was it ‘crazy’ for this scientist to re-create a bird flu virus that killed 50 million people?”
Let me cut to the chase.
Just about anyone paying heed the past five to 10 years might have noticed a near-constant drumbeat on the possibility of pandemic: SARS, bird flu, swine flu — the so-called Zombie Apocalypse, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control! Inundated by pandemic warnings, one could be forgiven for wondering what the powers that be know that we apparently do not. If Mother Nature won’t cull the herd fast enough might a self-fulfilling prophecy of the pandemic kind do?
It is ironic to learn that researchers have resurrected the infamous “Spanish Flu” to call attention to the ease with which it may reoccur — for the sake of a cure, of course! The problem is, the Spanish Flu is — or was — defunct. More to the point, each virus is its own rapidly-mutating entity. Theoretically, one could cure a single strain of the common cold only to leave hundreds unscathed. The odds that any one research facility might “cure” the correct strain of a not-yet-realized pandemic? Nada. Instead of creating more virulent diseases, learning how to weaken existing viruses could very well yield the same developmental insights — the direction medical research must ultimately go to cure anything in the first place.
Now that Spanish Flu is “out there” its very existence serves to inspire one-upmanship — and some of those undertakings will no doubt occur in nations unfriendly to our own. It matters little whether stringent safety standards remain intact at the originating university laboratory. Once others follow suit, all bets are off.
Intelligence doesn’t always shape a person where it counts — the ability to anticipate consequences, for example. The Fort Hood psychiatrist who shot military personnel en masse is but one example of the fact that we, as a society, hand out too many free passes merely for attaining a certain level of education, income, rank or celebrity. Success of this kind is hardly enough to satisfy a basic question, however: Who are you and can I — or we, as a society — trust you?
The kind of scientific research that might one day weed out sociopaths and those who suffer compromised executive function — a deficit in the part of the brain responsible for holding in check impulses and to foresee the consequences of one’s actions — is still in its infancy. And yet there’s enough research to suggest that occupational screening methods must be improved. By some accounts, sociopaths are more prevalent in high-power positions: that of surgeon, lawyer, politician, executive and law enforcement officer, to name a few. The line between genius and madness may be thinner than we fully appreciate, and yet society does little to ensure that power does not concentrate in ill-equipped hands.
In a Zombie Apocalypse, first responders — be they physicians at local hospitals, CDC experts or microbiologists at university research labs — may very well be among the first to succumb, in which case society stands to lose the brain trust we might otherwise rely upon to treat, let alone halt, a pandemic. Such a scenario, while improbable, is not impossible — especially in the immediate vicinity of a so-called hot zone facility. If a virulent virus or bacteria escapes a laboratory via human error or “act of God”, that same accident, disaster or terrorist attack may very well take out the individuals most familiar with what was done, how it was done and how to put the genie back in the bottle. Our first clue that something has gone awry may involve little more than a news blurb noting the passing of a little-known researcher. Not until staff, family, neighbors and community members succumb to a deadly illness would we be the wiser — and by then we may have lost or incapacitated the very people nearest and best equipped to respond.
Creating a virulent, recombinant virus isn’t the hard part. Learning how to eliminate a virus as pervasive as the common cold, on the other hand? Impossible to this point. The fact is, no breakthroughs on the order of the polio vaccine have occurred in the 21st Century. Until researchers prove themselves capable of curing vs. causing illness, they should not have access to pandemic development. There is no rational to the promotion of deadly new or reinvigorated pathogens for the sake of humanitarianism. Put another way, if we do not possess the scientific know-how to cure a single strain of the common cold, delving headfirst into pandemic development is a case of too far, too fast.
Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice…
It’s a fact of life: Accidents happen. The nuclear industry assured the public early on that numerous safety regulations made the unthinkable, unthinkable. The Three Mile Island disaster could have served as a timely wake-up call, but the world community largely brushed aside the Three Mile Island fluke, paving the path for Chernobyl and Fukushima — unforeseen installments in a small but notable series of so-called impossibilities. Fraud plays a role in upsetting best-laid plans, too. In the nonfiction movie “Silkwood” a US manufacturer for the nuclear power industry knowingly supplies flawed components to nuclear installations through the mid 1970s. That was then. This is now. And not much has changed: San Onofre Nuclear Power station went into permanent shutdown last year after inspectors learned that multimillion dollar upgrades put the Southern California nuclear power plant at higher risk than ever.
If we imagine that biohazard research will continue until the end of modern human society — indefinitely — it is only a matter of time before a civilization-altering pandemic originates not from nature, not from a terrorist but from a research laboratory*. And it doesn’t take the imagination of a Hollywood screenwriter to anticipate how: a slip of a scalpel during a necropsy, a prolonged electrical outage, a ventilation system failure, an aircraft crashing into a research facility, an extortion attempt involving a high-level researcher, an earthquake, fire, flood, hurricane, tornado — or a disgruntled suspect law enforcement fails to nab, not unlike the individual alleged to have mailed letters laced with anthrax after 9/11.
We are Not so Smart
The United States and the Soviet Union built enough nuclear weaponry during the Cold War to destroy the planet at least seven times over. Cold War nuclear weaponry still exists in spades, some of it unaccounted for following the breakup of the USSR, and much of it deadly even in a decommissioned state. Earlier this year, a nuclear waste facility experienced a malfunction, allowing a plume of plutonium to waft over New Mexico. It just goes to show: Once scientists create something we cannot eradicate, it never ceases to pose a costly, cumbersome risk. Even relatively low-level radiological contaminants have accrued to the point where creative — if not insidiously irresponsible — disposal methods have been rationalized. In the 1990s and as recently as 2012 the Department of Energy proposed the recycling of radioactive scrap into consumer products — playground equipment, zippers, braces, cookware, costume jewelry — you name it.
If Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the outgrowth of the nuclear arms race — a legacy we continue to grapple with some 30 years after the fact — Mutually Assured Deadly Disease (MADD), to coin a new take on an old term, is the new face of 21st Century biohazard research. With each new advance in science and technology, the reach of any given disaster — be it chemical, radiological or biological — extends further around the globe, far outstripping our capacity to respond to the unthinkable.
To be or not to be safe. That is the question.
Will humanity grow up — or die out?
* JUNE 19, 2014 UPDATE