Monday, November 28, 2011


I suppose it was inevitable. And yet - reading the article, I'm struck by an awesome sense of frustration at the unbelievable, indescribable stupidity of what's been done here.

Those of you with memories longer than your average mayfly will recall the Great Avian Flu scare. A strain of influenza associated with birds started killing people in places like Hong Kong, and Vietnam, and there was a looong, nasty, tense wait to see whether it would take off and turn pandemic.

Turned out the virus was a serious killer. Of the folks infected, about 70% just plain died. Systems collapse. To give you some idea, the Great Spanish Flu pandemic which occurred in 1918 and killed more people around the world than all of World War One had a lethality of about 2.5%.

Lucky for us, the H5N1 Avian Flu virus turned out to be fairly difficult to catch. The structure of the virus itself made it pretty non-contagious in humans. It had to be inhaled deep, deep into the system before it could catch hold - which was why almost all the victims were either chicken-herders, or were directly caring for affected victims who were chicken-herders.

Whew. Sigh of relief, eh?

Except now, some unbelievably stupid Dutchman has not only genetically modified the virus to be highly contagious, while leaving it at roughly 5o% lethality... but he's also presented a paper on the topic.

I appreciate the thought that knowing this shit can potentially help us prepare... but to present this kind of stuff in a public forum is the absolute height of lunacy. People are, of course, talking about 'banning the paper'. But it's the 21st century, folks. You can bet that information is well and truly into "the wrong hands" already. Banning it at this point is a waste of time.

Folks... here's how it is. When this one gets out, we're fucked on a scale not even imagined since the 14th century.

Nice knowin' y'all.


  1. Yes its a risk, however what this scientist did was essential if we are to prepare against such a pandemic.

    From the university's web site

    "To achieve this in a laboratory, they introduced a number of mutations to the virus that could also occur in nature. The discovery will enable scientists to recognize in time when a virus becomes a threat to public health, thereby possibly preventing a pandemic.

    “We have discovered that this is indeed possible, and more easily than previously thought”, says Ron Fouchier, researcher at Erasmus MC. “In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air. This process could also take place in a natural setting.”

    The discovery is important as it could prevent a severe pandemic from occurring. Fouchier: “We now know which mutations to watch for in the case of an outbreak and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late. Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication.”

    and while the argument that publishing this research means a terrorist can brew up a superbug, in truth that has been possible for a while now. With the biohacker movement I am suprised that it hasn't occurred all ready. But withdrawing his research from publication isn't going to prevent this, after all what he did was simply introduce mutations and study those which arise. That's what anyone can do with the experience, facilities and desire. Unlike atomic weapons this stuff can be brewed up on a bench top. Already you get a phone call from the federal police if you order a sizable quantity of culture media and you aren't a school, university or research lab but use a private address. This stuff is just to easy to do.

    What professor Fouchier has done by publishing his work is given us the best chance of develop effective vaccines against this killer when it does mutate in the environment, either naturally or artificially.

    The next big pandemic is coming and its the profs that will help save humanity, not damn it.

  2. Dude. While all of that makes sense, doing it in public does not. At all.

    Look at it this way. A friend of mine drew a parallel with computer exploits. When the white-hat hackers discover a new exploit... well, they don't go public. The first thing they do, almost always, is contact the parties creating the vulnerable software. Microsoft, or Adobe, or whoever. And then, if and only if the commercial vendors of the vulnerable stuff don't want to know -- THEN they take it public.

    This shouldn't have gone public. This should have gone very quietly to the CDC in the USA, and to similar organisations around the developed world. Taking it public first up is just madness.

  3. Oh, please, enough with the histrionics. The plans for building a nuclear bomb are out there, too, and no one has done it. And why? Because it takes huge resources outside of the hands of anyone other than wealthy governments to do it. The same is true for virus genetic engineering.

    However, what it takes entire nations to do at great expense, nature does for free. The sources I rely upon tell me that a human engineered virus won't emerge as a threat, but they also assure me with equal certainty that emerging biological threats have a very good chance of bringing about the end of human civilization via a pandemic that kills off most of the world's population relatively quickly. According to these sources, it is only a matter of time before bird flu mutates into a form that is easily transmitted from human to human. The same is true for swine flu, which has recently made the transition. And let us not forget the losing race to find new antibiotics to fight bacterial diseases - such as tuberculosis - that are rapidly becoming immune to existing antibiotics.

    There is a natural balance that Pasture's germ theory and the Green Revolution disrupted, but only temporarily. The ghost of Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus has been patiently waiting and grinning, ready to remind us that hubris is the greatest of the mortal sins.

    Now, if you will excuse me, I must go. There is something about monkeys on the television. I find monkeys fascinating.

  4. Mr Boylan is right, this is what nature does to virus, will do and is doing to virus. The problem with not publishing the research but only releasing it to a few like the CDC is that it cuts down on the numbers of people who can work on ways to prevent such an outbreak.

    I think the analogy with the computer software is spurious since the systems involved are artificial since we can't contact the parties creating the vulnerable software in this case. The vulnerable software in this case is us.

  5. Did you know that some monkeys make and use tools? I learned a few minutes ago.

  6. While the good prof is correct about Malthus simply being in abeyance... he's not so correct about requiring the resources of nations to play with the genetics of a virus. In fact, it's do-able with the kind of equipment that a really good private school can afford.

    Unlike building a nuke, which requires some fairly serious hardware and infrastructure, plus access to enriched nuclear material, messing with 'flu doesn't really call for much at all.

    Upgrading from 'messing around' to 'making something really, really fucking dangerous' requires no more special equipment. All it requires is instructions. A kind of road-map, if you like... and that's precisely what these Dutch gentlemen have created.

    This is nothing like the nuke scenario. Even if Mr Terrorist builds one nuke, or two, or ten, Mr Terrorist still has to deliver them. Or if it's a nation with the nuclear goodies, again: delivery to target is still required.

    Build yourself a contagious killer 'flu, and distribution is as simple as - well, taking a public train, for example.

    There's no histrionics here. Just a simple recognition of what this particular piece of scientific genius really means.

    Meanwhile: I knew that chimpanzees, at least, made and used tools. I also knew that crows were capable of doing the same, and that at least one octopus has been observed improvising and utilising simple tools. But monkeys? Nope. I didn't know that.

  7. "While the good prof is correct about Malthus simply being in abeyance... he's not so correct about requiring the resources of nations to play with the genetics of a virus. In fact, it's do-able with the kind of equipment that a really good private school can afford."

    Okay, so I was whistling in the dark. Why can't you let me pretend, huh? Would it cost you anything to let me live a pleasant fiction?

    All I ask for is grilled wallaby (fresh - it has to be strictly fresh) paired with Tassie champagne and maybe a sauteed vegetable before the end. Oh, I don't know, maybe broccoli or, perhaps, brussel sprouts. Definitely something cruciferous.

  8. That's the rub tell everyone and let them prep or leave some behind the curve if it happens.

    The scary part is that lethality in a flu that's not so quick it can burn itself out. Not the solution to global warming, over population, over use of resources and the rest I was hoping for.

  9. Wallaby is a game meat. Delicate, but still game. We'll open with the champagne, but we'll pair it with local scallops. The wallaby we'll set against mushrooms and local Pinot noir - which also comes out exceptionally well down here. Brussels sprouts are in the garden right now; hopefully they'll be bearing when you get down this way.

    Bangar... as Prof Boylan observes, I've been expecting something like this. Really, with rising antibiotic resistance, new arboviruses turning up due to "bushmeat" and other new exposures, it's only a matter of time.

    I just didn't expect anybody in the scientific community to be quite this stupid. For all I know, someone has already done this research, but kept it sensibly quiet, and gone to the pandemic-prevention people. I hope.

    This chap is just... a bit on the naive side, really.

    BTW: if and when this one gets loose, I will personally slam the doors shut on Tasmania so fast you won't know what's happening. Airports shut down, armed men at all the ports with orders to fire on anyone coming into range. I live on an island for a reason!

  10. Note to self if needed a night beach landing will be used, and cough suppressants (no need to be shot for tickle in the throat)

  11. The sheer fk headed stupidity of some people simply knows no bounds.

    Sure, by all means, fkn around and gaming out types and potential issues has been around for a LONG TIME as we well know. BUT, its kept in the dark and especially in this day and age. FK ME...I still cannot get over the dick head, and those other dick heads that decided publishing it was COOL TOO!. FFSAKES, CAP TEH FKN LOT before they do something else just as fucking stupid, like ...I DONT KNOW, discovering the secret to killing planets with playdoh and publishing THAT on the fkn net as well.

  12. Hey. Play-doh is dangerous stuff, dammit!

    Bangarrrrrrrrr: careful. A lot of the locals are prone to night-shooting with spotlights. You look enough like a wallaby to confuse them.

  13. To expand on the above story, to date no article has been published by Professor Fouchier on this research yet. At a conference in Malta in September he reported about the work. He submitted the paper for publication to the journal Science but is currently being reviewed by US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity who "Advise on polices regarding the conduct, communication, and oversight of dual use research and results, as requested." (dual use refers to researching stuff that can be used to harm). Their recommendations are not binding but are influential.

    I haven't seen the paper but rather than being a how to build a bioweapon, it will report Professor Fouchier's study. Which interestingly began by trying to reverse engineer a more dangerous virus by targeting specific genes using advanced techniques.
    This failed.
    He then used the much older, low tech route of reinfecting host animals (ferrets in this case) generation after generation the way this occurs in nature and mapping the changes. After 10 generations, the virus had become "airborne": Healthy ferrets became infected simply by being housed in a cage next to a sick one. The airborne strain had five mutations in two genes, each of which have already been found in nature, Fouchier says; just never all at once in the same strain.

    Rather than a how to manual it sound like the research is the sort that any half competent researcher could do with a pretty reasonable lab and the willingness to do it. A thesis that finds support given that another study—also on H5N1, and with comparable results—was done by a team led by virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo. It is also awaiting publication.

    What is interesting about these studies for me is that the deliberate attempt use modern gene technology to engineer a deadlier H5N1 avian influenza was unsuccessful but replicating what is happening in nature now and then identify the changes yielded the result.

    As Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York said "Nature is much more likely to come up with highly pathogenic influenza than we humans,"

    So my problem with trying to suppress the research is that it can not stop dedicated experienced people discovering it. Not even slow down the discovery. But the more teams around the world that have this information the better the chance that we can develop means to control and prevent the pandemic if it comes.

    Sorry about the long post, would have done it over on my blog but this is where the discussion is happening.

  14. I take your point about the value of letting the good guys know about this. But truly: I query the value of broadcasting widely that pretty much anyone with a cage of ferrets and a source of avian 'flu can take a shot at this.

    I realise that suppressing the research is a no-go. That's half the reason for the tone of the original post. The fact that it's been done in the open world of science means that it's wayyyy too late for any kind of suppression, and yes: at this point, we need to let the good guys in on it.

    What I continue to say is: the original researcher has behaved with breathtaking naivety. If, for example, I could freely mess with nuclear gear, and I had a strong suspicion that anybody who could source a little heavy water could use my back-yard technique to build a fusion bomb... why, the first thing I'd do would be to NOT carry out my back-yard experiment.

    Instead, I'd quietly open channels with the people responsible for nuclear safety. And I'd demonstrate my new technique in THEIR back yard, under THEIR security screen.

    The open-ness of scientific research is a very valuable principle. But the old argument about putting a loaded gun into the hands of a toddler also applies. If these researchers have truly demonstrated that a handful of ferrets and a sick chicken can create a civilisation-killing virus, then yes, they had a responsibility to keep that information as safe and as close to their chests as possible... and they screwed the pooch.