Where do I get my 1918 Flu Shot?

Friday, October 14th, 2005 11:20 pm by Neal

Charles Krauthammer has a rather depressing essay on the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 million people. In a remarkable bit of laboratory innovation worthy of Jurassic Park, scientists have re-generated the 1918 bird flu virus from deceased victims. This is the ultimate double-edged sword: one edge holds the secret to a vaccine with the potential to save millions from another bird flu just around the corner; the other edge holds a weapon of armageddon that makes nukes look like spitballs (thanks, Zell).

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 is available.”

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.”

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