While official Washington has been poring over Harriet Miers's long-ago doings on the Dallas City Council and parsing the byzantine comings and goings of the Patrick 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 U.S. scientists have just created a living, killing copy of the 1918 "Spanish" flu.
This is big. Very big.
First, it 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."
Which brings us to the second element of this story: Beyond the brilliance lies the sheer terror. We have 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 World War I. 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 New Scientist magazine, 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.
Now that 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 also now been published for the whole world, good people and very bad, to see.
The decision to publish was a very close call, terrifyingly close.
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-or-death race with the bird flu. Can we figure out how to preempt 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 open the gates of hell. Anybody, bad guys included, can now create it. Biological knowledge is far easier to acquire for Osama bin Laden 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."
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.
We might have just given it to our enemies.
Have a nice day.