A Dangerous Method
There were cameras literally everywhere, in London. So far, he’s managed not to think about them. He remembered Bigend saying they were a symptom of autoimmune disease, the state’s protective mechanisms ‘roiding up into something actively destructive, chronic; watchful eyes, eroding the healthy function of that which they ostensibly protected. –William Gibson (2010)
This summer Ron Fouchier’s lab in the Netherlands conducted an experiment as frightening for its simplicity as for its results. The team produced a human-transmissible version of highly pathogenic influenza A (H5N1) or bird flu.
Rather than by reverse genetics, wherein a complex round robin of mutations are introduced in an effort to produce a human-specific bird flu, an approach which failed most recently at CDC, the Fouchier group let the virus converge on a solution all on its own. HPAI H5N1 was intranasally inoculated into a group of lab ferrets (whose immune response mimics humans’). Only ten infection generations later the virus went “airborne”—transmitted by respiration—while remaining as deadly as its field cousins (with a 75% case fatality rate). A repeat of the experiment reproduced the result.
As much of the coverage of the experiment put it, crazy ain’t it? But which part? Biosecurity experts, on the last fumes of post-9/11 funding, have raised bloody hell, warning the methodology and results alike would permit some James Bond villain, stroking an evil ferret, to reproduce the virus.
The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has asked science journals Nature and Science to censor the study, allowing only “responsible” scientists, whoever that might be, access to the study’s specifics. As if hundreds of lab jockeys around the world haven’t already figured them out on their own.
Redacting the new strain’s specific genetic sequence misses the crux of the experiment anyway, speaking more to the ways a civilization fetishizes a cipher than the virus’s actual biology. There are many molecular roads to a deadly pandemic (and this specific one may never prove the winner even if concocted in some nefarious cave lab).
Terrorist organizations needn’t bother bloating their R&D budgets in the meantime. The industrial countries have already undertaken the Big Science needed to kill their own populations. Since 9/11 hundreds of BSL-3 and -4 labs have been built across the world–many in urban areas–for studying pathogens terrorists might use. Accidents have been occurring in these labs with “alarming regularity,” as Laurie Garrett describes it. Any release of a bioengineered agent is likely to be self-inflicted. The biosecurity industry appears the very thing it claims it seeks to destroy. Al-Qaeda couldn’t have planned it better.
The irony hasn’t been lost on commentators, some of whom, channeling Lawrence Fishburne’s CDC official, have pointed out nature is capable enough of producing a deadly virus. That is, of course, exactly the point of Fouchier’s experiment. Each of the five mutations his lab identified has been found in circulating H5N1 strains and, in my view, have likely already emerged together in combination, blocked from pandemicity only by the wrong local epidemiology, stochastic chance, or both.
Or was that the point? Lost in the brouhaha, which has confounded a pandemic’s cause and its etiological agent, is the infection’s actual source. Every one of the new human-specific influnezas have evolved out of poultry and livestock. Along with H5N1 and 2009’s H1N1, there are H1N2, H7N1, H7N3, H7N7, H9N2, in all likelihood H5N2, and perhaps some of the H6 series. This year alone two new swine influenzas have been discovered in the U.S. undertaking limited human-to-human transmission: a new H3N2 and a bizarre if attenuated H1N2 found here in Minnesota. Likely only two of a diverse and spatially expansive cryptic reservoir entwined with the hog industry’s commodity chains.
From WWII agribusiness, in what became known as the Livestock Revolution, globally reorganized husbandry into cities of monoculture pig and poultry, selecting for multiple virulent strains across pathogen taxa. We–not ‘nature’–have produced the conditions under which such strains can evolve and spread.
With the USDA and CDC firmly in agribusiness’ control–it is, after all, more important to protect a sector’s quarterly net than the lives of a billion potential victims–barely a peep of this open secret has made it into the public arena. Not even in our Contagion of spectacles. The biosecurity narrative serves opportunistic purposes beyond its proponents’ three-year funding horizons. With it we become unable to talk about influenza’s causes, which appears in part the point.