No, it’s not a forgotten B-grade 1950′s sci-fi thriller, but it might spell true extinction-level disaster for humanity. And – as usual – the corporate media is largely ignoring the pending global disaster in favor of nonstop coverage of the GOP campaign circus and mindless musings on the sex lives of various celebrities. Time magazine reports:
H5N1 avian flu rarely infects humans, but it is deadly when it does. Since the virus first emerged in humans in Hong Kong in 1997, nearly 600 people have been infected worldwide and almost 60% have died.
The virus isn’t very transmissible, but scientists have long worried that it might mutate, perhaps through reassortment with a human flu strain, and gain the ability to pass easily from person to person. . . . But just because nature hasn’t figured out a way to create an easily transmissible H5N1 doesn’t mean that scientists can’t. In experiments conducted at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, researchers engineered a strain of H5N1that spread easily between ferrets — which means it can probably spread easily between people.
And now there are the obvious ethical concerns over whether or not these researchers should publish their findings because, y’know, the “new and improved” airborne strain easily could be turned into a killer biological weapon. Forget the issue of why the $#@! these scientists engineered a lethal, easily transmissible form of avian flu and then decided to shoot it into a bunch of ferrets. Sounds like some bizarro new smartphone game designed to rival Angry Birds. Call it Rabid Ferrets.
They claim they wanted to better study the virus in a “controlled” or “protected” environment, or something. Anybody who’s seen a sci-fi “killer virus on the loose” flick in the last 50 years knows that this scenario usually ends with Will Smith hunting a wild deer through the abandoned streets of a post-apocalyptic New York City. The Time articles addresses that nasty little possibility as well:
The work on the new H5N1 so far has been done in BSL-3 enhanced labs, which have high-efficiency air filters and which require scientists to shower and change clothes when leaving the lab — in other words, safe, but perhaps not safe enough. Worse, there’s little real oversight, with safety left largely to individual researchers. . . . And the rapid spread of an escaped flu virus would make it more dangerous than other deadly pathogens. “When SARS or BSL-4 agents get out, their potential for transmission on a global basis is quite limited,” says Michael Osterholm, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, and is a member of the NSABB. “Influenza presents a very difficult challenge because if it ever were to escape, it is one that would quickly go round the world.”