Doomsday Microbes: Is Some Science Too Dangerous to Permit?

11/29/2012 06:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

In Stephen King's The Stand, Armageddon is born from a U.S. military bioweapons project to engineer a deadly form of the flu. The beginning chapters of the thriller predictably tell the story of the virus' escape and epidemic rampage through the world, killing most of the human population. While the remainder of the story focuses more on supernatural horror, the beginning has many all-too-plausible elements.

It has not even been 100 years since the "Spanish flu" of 1918 killed upwards of 50 million people, infecting almost a third of the world's population, covering the globe from the Arctic to the Pacific Islands. And we weren't exactly jet setting around the world then. Such a virus would circulate the planet in a fraction of the time now.

Historical epidemics of plague are estimated to have killed half of Europe's population in the Middle Ages, taking the lives of an estimated 200 million people worldwide in several global pandemics. Clearly, there are existential threats to human civilization from deadly microbes as much as from asteroids or nuclear war.

That is why in 2007, when government and academic researchers announced that they had been able to "resurrect" the deadly 1918 flu virus, there was great controversy. This year, a similar controversy erupted when researchers announced that they had mutated avian flu to increase its transmissibility in mammals.

There are many solid scientific and medical reasons to perform these experiments. Reviving the Spanish flu allows researchers to study what made it so very deadly in the first place. Mutating avian flu to be more transmissible allows us to figure out what are the genetic determinants of transmissibility, which will help combat the disease and identify potentially dangerous strains in the future.

But in bringing back or creating such dangerous infectious agents, is the risk worth the reward?

When it comes to deadly microbes, we have a long history of "playing with fire." The United States and the Soviet Union spent decades developing weaponized versions of anthrax, plague, and smallpox. Smallpox, a horrible and deadly disease currently eradicated from the Earth through vaccination, would be devastating if released on our unvaccinated, non-immune civilization. This so-called "dark biology" of the Cold War also involved the engineering of antibiotic-resistant strains of deadly bacteria like plague, which would make them impervious to modern medicine.

The foolishness of bioweapons is generally understood: They could turn around and decimate those using them as easily as they would decimate their intended targets. However, what about deadly microbes produced or maintained for the sake of science?

The dangers are obvious. Nothing is foolproof. We have too many examples of the failures of human technology. A major breakdown leading to the escape of a highly contagious organism could be disastrous. There are also the risks of rogue biologists or theft by criminals and terrorists. We may already have an example of a rogue biologist committing an act of bioterrorism in the FBI's conclusion that Bruce Ivins was the perpetrator of the deadly anthrax mailings to Democratic legislators.

There has been a huge concern that Russia's aging nuclear weapons might lead to bomb materials falling into the wrong hands. What about deadly microbes that could be smuggled out as a drop on a piece of clothing, or, more horribly, in intentionally infected hosts who would be the ultimate suicide bombers?

The debate is far from over. Even as we sit on stockpiles of epidemic-capable microbes, many seek to stop such research and to have such stockpiles destroyed forever. The authors of the mutant avian flu paper were initially blocked from publishing their results out of fear that dark biologists could use the information to create horrific bioweapons.

Perhaps the most frightening part is that the science behind engineering bioweapons is not rocket science. It's not nuclear physics. It's fairly simple stuff by the standards of current technology. Modern nucleic acid synthesis will soon allow for entire virus genomes to be produced by machines that can fit in the palm of your hand. Miracles of the post-genomic era.

Is there danger in stockpiling potential Armageddon microbes, trusting in our ability to secure them? Or in creating new variants whose properties we cannot fully predict? Or might the greatest danger lie in closing our eyes in fear and refusing to study them, missing the opportunity to learn what makes them so deadly?

This is a debate modern civilization must continue to have. Like with the atom, we have the power to wield (bio)technology that could decimate humanity. Perhaps as with the atom, the genetic genie is out of the bottle, and it is only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, does something really stupid.

I tend to favor the last hypothesis; after all, as a species, we did not show great wisdom with atomic weapons. As J.R.R. Tolkien cried out in a letter to his son, "The news today about 'Atomic bombs' is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world!"

I would therefore vote, with great hesitancy, for the continued study of these organisms for the pragmatic reason that, if biological "white hats" don't, there are others who certainly will. But the stakes are very high, and we need to choose wisely.

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