Image courtesy Cybercobra/Wikipedia
[UPDATE: This cautionary tale of bioterror and paranoia has been syndicated by Huffington Post and their various content partners.]
Information wants to be free, the aphorism goes, especially when it comes to science. But when it comes to explaining how a lethally airborne avian influenza pandemic transmits among humans, freed information evidently crosses over into terrorism. Despite the fact that when it comes to the evidence that science demands daily, the existential threat of faceless terrorists furtively scurrying around in search of soft targets pales into comparison to the daily apocalypses doled out by governments waging unaffordable wars and occupations. If bioterrorism has a real face, then it’s a familiar one.
No wonder Ron Fouchier is frustrated. The Rotterdam-based virologist and his team recently mutated a strain of deadly H5N1 bird flu for simpler transmission among mammals, an achievement whose alarming data nevertheless leads us inexorably closer to possible solutions for future pandemics. Which is nice, because we’ve had more than our share in the past. But last month, publication of Fouchier’s research in Science and Nature was sidelined at the urging of the United States’ National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), and last week 39 avian flu researchers, including Fouchier’s team, agreed to a 60-day moratorium on research and testing altogether.
“NSABB has said that the risks outweigh the benefits, and now many people are saying: In that case, you shouldn’t do this research at all,” Fouchier told Science.
“But the infectious disease community doesn’t agree with NSABB on this. What NSABB should explain better is what the risks are exactly. How much bioterrorism have we seen in the past? What are the chances that bioterrorists will recreate these viruses? And is it really true that publication of this research would give bioterrorists or rogue nations an advantage? That’s what I would like to hear from the NSABB.”
Welcome to the Terrordome
“Science always moves faster when information is freely available, there’s no doubt about that,” Dr. Paul Keim, acting chairman of the NSABB, told me by phone last month after Fouchier agreed to the NSABB and U.S. government’s historical request to redact portions of his methodology. “But on the other hand, in this particular case, we felt that the information could be used to repeat the experiments in a very short period of time, and that might be done by groups of individuals that we wouldn’t want to be doing that,” he added. “So it’s a balance. It’s possible that freely released information would give us a slight advantage in the case of an outbreak. But it was the board’s opinion that the advantage was overweighed by the potential for that information being used for harm.”
Trying to safeguard America from harm has become a political and cultural obsession ever since 9/11, which gave subsequent birth to the first bioterror threat of the new millennium. The 2001 anthrax attacks killed five and infected 17, but its arguments for unintended consequences — in which “bioterrorism warrior” Keim’s research team played a “crucial role,” according to his employer Northern Arizona University — are instructive. A decade later, they still remain unsolved, after spending precious time and taxpayer dollars pursuing and harassing scientists without any convictions.
Once targeted by America’s bioterorism authorities, Steven Hatfill has since committed $1.5 million to building a floating genetic laboratory far from civilization as we know it. And he’s got the funding: The Justice Department agreed to pay a $4.6 million settlement for routinely violating his civil rights, money that he plans to use cruising his lab ark through the Amazon in search of undiscovered plants and animals that could help combat diseases increasingly immune to antibiotics. He has agreed to license whatever he finds to pharmaceutical companies, but on the condition that developing nations receive the resultant medicines at cost.
The other anthrax suspect America haunted in the name of defeating terrorism is Bruce Ivins, who died of an apparent suicide in 2008, five years after receiving the Department of Defense’s highest civilian decoration for his work on an anthrax vaccine. To date, no formal charges have been levied against him and no direct evidence linking him to the 2001 anthrax attacks has surfaced.
Given that sloppy track record, redactions and moratoriums stop looking like smart protocol and start looking more like authoritarian paranoia. It certainly doesn’t help the United States’ case that avian flu sucks as weaponized bioterror. It has zero targeting capability, and can’t kill with extremist prejudice. That may make it more of an existential threat than current global pandemics like AIDS or climate change, but it doesn’t make it a workable bioweapon. Unless, of course, the objective is to bring about a massive die-off that climate change will likely take care of by itself.
“I agree,” Keim told AlterNet. “At this point, it would be a doomsday weapon. Unfortunately, we already have these types of weapons in the world already.”
Image courtesy Warner Bros.
Home Is Where the Hurt Is
Today, as before, the potential for apocalypse is found too close to home. The anthrax used in the 2001 attacks evidently originated from the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where Ivins worked and whose birth emerged from the disgraced closure of United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, started in 1943 at the peak of America’s involvement in World War II.
In 2014, construction will be completed on USAMRIID’s new facility, which the Manhattan Construction Group called “the largest, most complex biocontainment facility ever designed.” Fingers crossed that it’s not only designed to safely house anthrax and perhaps also vaccine-free nightmares like the Ebola virus, but immune to whoever actually controls the scientists tinkering with apocalypse and its avoidance. Because it is likely them and not terrorists — like the alleged Al-Qaeda cell that wiped itself out while trying to weaponize the Black Death — who will unleash plagues upon us.
“I have no way of knowing whether a combined Ebola-smallpox agent has been created, but it is clear that the technology to produce such a weapon now exists,” former Soviet biological warfare researcher Colonel Kanatzhan Alibekov, known since his defection to the U.S. as Dr. Ken Alibek, wrote in his controversial book 1999 Biohazard. “To argue that these weapons won’t be developed simply because existing armaments will do a satisfactory job contradicts the history and the logic of weapons development, from the invention of the machine gun to the hydrogen bomb.”
Like other death-bringing viral hemorrhagic fevers, Ebola probably has fearsome weaponization potential, as do antibiotic-resistant superbugs, SARS and of course the flu, which has been history’s nastiest pandemic. Doubtless there are further viral horrors awaiting a new millennium with dramatically enhanced genetic and chemical engineering capabilities.
But AIDS is the pandemic at hand, even though it is avian flu that has made history by hamstringing the very scientific community that mutated it.
“There have been pandemics throughout history, and it is certain that there will continue to be pandemics in the future as microbes continue to emerge and re-emerge,” the NIH’s Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told me last month. “There are microbes that could newly emerge and with which we have had no prior experience, as was the case in 1981 when the first cases of AIDS were recognized. In the 30 years since the medical community first became aware of it, AIDS has claimed at least 30 million lives and is among history’s leading infectious disease killers.”
Yet we are terrorized by bird flu, with a government that says we should be. And where we once felt safe as houses when it came to influenza pandemics, now we’ve suddenly flipped our minds and found in our midst just more terrorists with potential for transmission. Even if we’re actually safe as houses, which we never have been and never will be. I bet you feel better already.