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H5N1 Redux

H5N1 Redux

Scientific American Executive Editor Fred Guterl has a superb short article in the June issue of the magazine laying out the basics of the  H5N1 virus scare:

• how it is that bird flus represent a “natural reservoir” of influenzas that jump to human populations

• how under natural conditions such viruses can mutate and recombine to become more transmissible and more deadly

• how, why and when the U.S. government came to spend much more money on lethal influenza research

• and when and why the U.S. government and independent national security experts became seriously concerned about bird virus modification work.

Even if the H5N1 virus turned out to be only  one twentieth as lethal as data on infections and deaths suggest so far, a human transmissible version of it could be more deadly than the 1918 flu epidemic, one prominent expert pointed out to Guterl. A bird flu virus engineered to spread among mammals “is an agent of mass destruction that gets into the nuclear weapons league and even exceeds it,” said John Steinbruner of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

Guterl’s article, “Waiting to Explode,” is illustrated with a feathery version of a mushroom cloud.

Among other things, Guterl does a fine job of explaining the case for manipulating bird flu viruses and the arguments in favor of publishing the results. “Pinning down exactly what genetic components are needed to confer traits such as lethality and transmissibility on H5N1 would allow health experts to be on the watch for dangerous new strains that emerge in the wild and prepare for them in advance,” he writes.

Speaking strictly as an amateur observer, I have to say that I’m not wholly persuaded that this makes a convincing case for publication of the research results.  The two teams that did the H5N1 modification work may have shown ways in which the mammal transmissible variants could arise, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily have identified all the possible ways or even the most likely ones. Might not mother nature, in her incarnation  as witch, brew up much more insidious pathways? Isn’t it possible that the teams only have shown that a human transmissible strain is makable without actually showing how it most likely would occur?

Perhaps Guterl is hinting at that himself with his last sentence, which says we are in the uncomfortable position of “having too much knowledge and [yet] too little.”

Yoshihiro Kawaoka [photo] , one of  the two principal researchers responsible for creating the modified mammal-transmissable H5N1 viruses, and the one much more prominently featured in the SciAm article,  declined to talk with Guterl. Given the complexity and public importance of the issues surrounding his work, I want to say for the record that I find his refusal to talk with a magazine of Scientific American’s stature a little shocking. Ron Fouchier, the other principal investigator, also has taken a rather high-handed attitude toward public discussion of the security implications of bird flu modification research.

Being a magazine journalist myself, I hasten to add that I’m almost equally shocked by some minor lapses of diction and grammar in the article. The roulette wheel is already in spin. Don’t we say spinning? An open farm acts like a virus convention, where different strains swap genetic material like conventioneers swap business cards. Fred! Winston tastes good like a cigarette should?





William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.