It was Albert Einstein, I believe, who suggested only two things were infinite. The universe and stupidity. And he wasn’t sure about the universe.
According to media reports, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tinkering with the H1N1 flu virus that triggered a pandemic in 2009 and killed 500,000. Apparently, he’s altered it to take away human immunity built up since 2009. There are solid scientific reasons for doing so – we learn how to make better vaccines. Excellent motive.
Except – e-e-e-except…the modified virus poses a threat if it escapes. Estimates of casualties range from a billion people down to merely 400,000,000. Kawaoka’s effort has been criticised as irresponsible, and response generally, seems critical.
I’m not a virologist. But I know what happened when the Justinian plague and the Black Death hit Europe, or when Europe’s diseases hit the Americas and Australasia. I know what happened in 1918-19. Diseases to which humans had no immunity. And I think if someone shows something can be done, somebody else will repeat it on that knowledge alone.
What worries me is the wider trend towards tinkering with viruses in labs. We can, I fear, only get away for so long without an accident. Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Virology Department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is reported as using more direct terms. ‘If society understood what was going on,’ he was quoted in the Independent, ‘‘they would say “What the F… are you doing?”’
Quite right, too.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014