Thursday, October 20, 2005

Back away slowly....

From Krauthammer at the Washington Post:

Beyond the brilliance lies the sheer terror. We have brought back to life an agent of near-biblical destruction. It killed more people in six months than were killed in the four years of World War I. It killed more humans than any other disease of similar duration in the history of the world...

...resurrection of the virus and publication of its structure open the gates of hell. Anybody, bad guys included, can now create it....

Why try to steal loose nukes in Russia? A nuke can only destroy a city. The flu virus, properly evolved, is potentially a destroyer of civilizations.

We might have just given it to our enemies.

Ooookaaaayyyy..... Someone needs a dose of reality. This is the sort of bad writing on science that is fueling the current panic over Avian flu. Sure, there are dangers involved in influenza research, particularly with the recreation of the 1918 Spanish Flu strain, and yes Avian Flu has the potential (albiet small) to adapt to human-to-human transmission and become a major threat. However, the last thing we need is crazy doomsday scenarios being touted as established fact and an already jittery public whipped up into a frenzy.

To begin with, we have had the ability to recreate influenza strains for some time now... almost a decade in fact. Since the influenza genome consists of 8 small stretches of RNA, its not hard to translate the RNA into a more stable DNA molecule and 'store' each stretch as a plasmid... a circular loop of DNA with extra sequences that allow it to grow and be maintained within bacteria. If you want to reconstitute your flu, all you need to do is put all 8 stretches of RNA into a cell (well, its not THAT easy, but definately not new technology). The real innovation in the recreation of the Spanish Flu was recovering the original RNA from samples preserved or frozen for almost 90 years.

That said, we are a far cry from Osama bin Laden cooking up fresh flu in some cave in Pakistan. You need a fair amount of specialized equipment and know how to do this... not easily accessable to terrorists. Sure, the sequence is published online, but despite what Krauthammer thinks, companies that make DNA do not just sell it to anyone who asks. Trying to remake Spanish Flu by stitching together several thousand tiny bits of DNA is going to require an incredible amount of patience and will definately catch the attention of the authorities.

What frustrates me is Krauthammers conflation of Spanish Flu and Avian Flu... these are two very different flu strains, and the fact both originated in birds is meaningless. What is important is that Avian Flu is a new virus with a high mortality rate, but a very low level of transmission in humans. Its not adapted to us, and with as a high a mortality rate as it has, its unlikely it will get the chance. Spanish Flu, on the other hand, is a product of the unique environment of the first world war. Unlike Avian Flu, it actually got worse as time went on.... adapting to an environment of crowded conditions and poor health, where a highly virulent pathology meant greater success at spreading, rather than being trapped in a dying, isolated host.