On the one hand, we need the knowledge disseminated. We've learned from this research that the 1918 flu was bird flu, ``the most bird-like of all mammalian flu viruses,'' says Jeffery Taubenberger, lead researcher in unraveling the genome. There is a bird flu epidemic right now in Asia that has infected 117 people and killed 60. It has already developed a few of the genomic changes that permit transmission to humans. Therefore, you want to put out the knowledge of the structure of the 1918 flu, which made the full jump from birds to humans, so that every researcher in the world can immediately start looking for ways to anticipate, monitor, prevent and counteract similar changes in today's bird flu.
We are essentially in a life-and-death race with the bird flu. Can we figure out how to pre-empt it before it figures out how to evolve into a transmittable form with 1918 lethality that will decimate humanity? To run that race we need the genetic sequence universally known -- not just to inform and guide but to galvanize new research.
On the other hand, resurrection of the virus and publication of its structure opens the gates of hell. Anybody, bad guys included, can now create it. Biological knowledge is far easier to acquire for Osama and friends than nuclear knowledge. And if you can't make this stuff yourself, you can simply order up DNA sequences from commercial laboratories around the world that will make it and ship it to you on demand. Taubenberger himself admits that ``the technology is available.''
And if the bad guys can't make the flu themselves, they could try to steal it. That's not easy. But the incentive to do so from a secure facility could not be greater. Nature, which published the full genome sequence, cites Rutgers bacteriologist Richard Ebright as warning that there is a significant risk ``verging on inevitability'' of accidental release into the human population or of theft by a ``disgruntled, disturbed or extremist laboratory employee.''
One batch of 1918 flu has the capacity for mass destruction that no Bond villain could ever dream of. 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.
Have a nice day.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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