Creating death in a test tube
It’s the stuff of an edge-of-your-seat thriller: Scientists develop a fatal flu virus, one that could decimate humanity. What happens next?
Well, the fatal virus, a mutated strain of bird flu that can pass between other animals, is here. Scientists have created it in a lab - and it’s not clear what will happen next. Some scientists want to stop all the details of the research from being published for fear of bioterrorism, while others say ‘censorship’ will obstruct the search for a vaccine.
The very existence of the fatal virus, though, is a dramatic development. It echoes the plot of myriad horror flicks where the heroes battle an invisible villain amid gruesome illness and an increasing body count.
Hollywood is guilty of many shiny, pretty annoyances. Alvin and the Chipmunks. Tom Cruise. Twilight.
One of its other sins is crying wolf and turning good science to bad. Some of the best sci-fi and horror blockbusters take reality, and blow it into something monstrous. The Day After Tomorrow is a good example – with a core of real climate change science, exaggerated to fit the big screen.
Contagion, the latest of the epidemic thriller flicks about the spread of a deadly disease, is another good example. A possible scenario distorted so that, while you can watch it with suspended disbelief, when you walk blinking into real life the story acquires a sense of unreality.
The Day After Tomorrow, with its wild scenarios, is often used by people to dismiss climate change as some half-baked fantasy in which that Donnie Darko guy is the emo-hero. Contagion allows people to put the apocalyptic flu scenario in the same basket as Shaun of the Dead. In a sense, they are alarmist fantasies.
Contagion is just the latest in the genre – mutant-virus-infects-the-world flicks have been around for years; pandemics provide the perfect global thriller a filmmaker can use as a backdrop for the intensely personal story of the protagonists.
All the best thrillers allow you to believe, even if it’s just for two hours and ten minutes. Contagion is believable because it’s based on a credible scenario – a scenario that edged a little closer to reality with this news that scientists in Holland have created the mutant killer flu virus.
They genetically altered a strain of bird flu so it can pass between ferrets – ferrets have a similar response to humans to the virus.
Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center says they “mutated the hell out of H5N1” and with just five mutations created a version of the virus that can spread through air. The ease with which they created this dangerous new form, he said, “seemed to be very bad news”.
Bird flu – H5N1 avian influenza – is frighteningly fatal, killing 60 per cent of those it infects. Luckily it can’t pass between humans, only from bird to human, so it has only killed 350 people. So far.
Scientific American author Katherine Harmon describes the prospect of a bird flu pandemic, if it becomes able to pass from human to human, as being at the top of a worst-case scenario list.
Right now, journals Science and Nature are trying to decide whether to publish the details of the Dutch findings. It’s an important breakthrough and could help in the battle against a flu pandemic. But publishing the details could also help terrorists weaponise the virus.
There’s an obvious answer; publish what you can without giving the game away, and release the rest to a limited number of trusted researchers. That’s a side plot.
The main storyline is this incredibly dangerous virus and our inability to fight it. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity chair Paul Keim said it was scarier than anthrax.
“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” he said.
Even if bioterrorists or rogue nations never glean the secrets of making the virus, the possibility remains that bird flu will mutate in the real world, and we could face a Hollywood-sized pandemic.
One of the problems we might then face is that Hollywood has cried wolf. If human-to-human transmission happens outside the control of the lab, the world could be in real trouble, but people may be complacent because that sort of thing only happens to Jude Law.
This possibility is increased because, in Australia at least, many people think the Government overreacted to the swine flu. More crying wolf.
Remember the swine flu? In Australia, schools were closed, experts predicted thousands could die. But now swine flu is part of life, of the usual flu cycle. Its effects were relatively mild, when we’d been sold the apocalypse.
So everything’s OK, right?
Well, not really. Swine flu showed we cannot stop a pandemic. Masks and airport temperature scanners and school closures may have slowed the spread, but they didn’t stop it.
And it is still a very real risk that, probably somewhere in the Third World where birds live closely with humans, bird flu will mutate. And then anything could happen. I have spoken to dozens of public health experts about the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the flu virus. And most of them made me want to stockpile Spam.
I’m not writing this to create panic, but to highlight the dangers of complacency, of dismissing the threat as the invention of alarmists. This is no movie. If H5N1 does mutate and spread among humans, we could be facing a very real, very dangerous contagion.
And most of the people who know what they are talking about say it’s a matter of when, not if.
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