We discuss and comment on the role agriculture will play in the containment of the CO2 problem and address protocols for terraforming the planet Earth.
A model farm template is imagined as the central methodology. A broad range of timely science news and other topics of interest are commented on.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Are we Mad to have let a Maverick Scientist Create a Virus that could Wipe out 400 Million People?
Perfect security has always been
impossible and the temptation of profitable research easily overcomes
all barriers as this gentlman has shown.
The inventory of known pathogens is
scary enough and serious effort has been applied to keep them out of
the wild. Now we are going to produce a library of prospective
pathogens to think about. That is what this work really means.
The argument regarding the value of
this research needs to be made and should not entail biological
Are we mad to have let a maverick
scientist create a virus that could wipe out 400 million people?
Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka
created a new strain of 2009 swine flu virus
If virus escaped it could kill
up to a billion people - there is no known vaccine
Professor Kawaoka argues that
it is part of valuable scientific research
Others in the field have called
the experiment 'exceedingly dangerous'
By GUY WALTERS
PUBLISHED: 00:54 GMT, 3 July
2014 | UPDATED: 10:11 GMT, 3 July 2014
What was extraordinary about the
great flu pandemic of 2018 was not only that it came exactly 100
years after the Spanish flu of 1918, but that it also killed 5 per
cent of the world’s population.
In 1918, that proportion meant some
100 million people. In 2018, nearly 400 million fell victim.
Of those, some one million were in
Britain. Nearly every family lost a loved one, with children and the
elderly being particularly vulnerable.
The NHS was unable to cope with the
sheer numbers infected, which ran to around ten million — almost a
sixth of the population.
With no vaccine available, all that
doctors could do was to send people home and tell them to hope for
It was the worst natural disaster
the world had ever seen. But the virus was no random creation of
Mother Nature — it was man-made, produced by an obscure professor
at a university deep in the heart of the U.S.
This may sound like a
science-fiction scenario that would strain credulity but,
terrifyingly, it is all too possible.
Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison has created a deadly new strain of
the 2009 swine flu virus — for which there is no known vaccine.
If the virus escaped from Professor
Kawaoka’s laboratory it could kill hundreds of millions — perhaps
even a billion. Worryingly, scientists seem as alarmed as the general
Professor Kawaoka revealed what he
had done at a secret meeting held earlier this year, and his fellow
virologists appear to have reacted with despair.
‘He’s basically got a known
pandemic strain that is now resistant to vaccination,’ said one
scientist who did not wish to be named. ‘Everything he did before
was dangerous, but this is even madder.’
So what exactly has Professor
Kawaoka done before?
Only last month Kawaoka revealed in
a scientific paper that he had also synthesised a bird flu virus —
called ‘1918-like Avian’.
He had created, through a process
called ‘reverse genetics’, a flu virus extremely similar to that
which caused the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
Kawaoka and his team declared that
they had made the virus to assess whether variants of the 1918 flu
were as deadly to humans as the original virus.
After testing it on ferrets, the
team found that what they had created, in the dry words of academia,
‘may have pandemic potential’.
A patient is given a swine flu
vaccination. Compared to the outbreak in 1918, H5N1 has so far been
relatively merciful. To date, only some 400 people worldwide have
died from the virus
An earlier experiment looked at
making another lethal bird flu strain easier to catch.
The idea that scientists blithely
create deadly flu viruses, essentially to see how deadly they are,
caused outrage in the scientific community and the world at large.
‘The work they are doing is
absolutely crazy,’ said Professor Lord May of Oxford, a former
president of the Royal Society. ‘The whole thing is exceedingly
Marc Lipsitch, Professor of
Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said: ‘I am
worried that this signals a growing trend to make “transmissible”
novel viruses willy-nilly. This is a risky activity, even in the
‘Scientists should not take such
risks without strong evidence that the work could save lives, which
this paper does not provide.’
Other scientists used stronger
‘If society understood what was
going on,’ thundered Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Virology
Department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, ‘they would say
“What the F are you doing?” ’
It’s a good question. Professor
Kawaoka did try to justify his research last month.
He explained that wild birds
continue to harbour many variants of the influenza A virus — the
strain of virus that can be transmitted from birds, including
domestic poultry, through to humans.
One of the subtypes of influenza A
is called H5N1 — a name familiar to many.
Not only was a form of H5N1 behind
the 1918 outbreak, but its variants have started to emerge over the
past ten years, and are now collectively known as ‘bird flu’.
Compared to the outbreak in 1918,
H5N1 has so far been relatively merciful. To date, only some 400
people worldwide have died from the virus.
However, this is not to say that a
new form of H5N1 could not be more deadly, and there are many
virologists around the world working on ways to deal with potential
Professor Kawaoka argues that
‘foreseeing and understanding this potential is important for
Kawaoka and his team create new
forms of H5N1, then study how they function and how easily they can
spread. Naturally, the experiments are carried out in extremely
Professor Kawaoka’s Department of
Pathobiological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin is not rated
at the most secure level.
Laboratories that work with deadly
biological agents are graded with increasing levels of biosafety,
which range from BSL-1 up to BSL-4.
Establishments rated at BSL-4
include the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down
in Wiltshire, and the new National Biodefense Analysis and
Countermeasures Center in Maryland in the U.S.
Professor Kawaoka’s lab is rated
at BSL-3. Under the strict guidelines, the entrance to the
laboratory must be through two sets of self-closing and locking
doors, and no air must escape from it.
All procedures must be carried out
inside a closed biological safety cabinet, into which scientists
insert their hands and arms cased in latex gloves.
Often, respirators must be worn,
and all staff members are medically screened, and immunised when
possible. However some scientists are adamant that the risks are
still too high.
In a paper published in 2012, Lynn
Klotz, a Senior Science Fellow at the U.S. Centre for Arms Control
and Non-Proliferation, stated that 42 institutions were working with
any number of three potentially deadly disease-causing substances —
smallpox, the SARS virus, and H5N1.
Klotz estimated there was an 80 per
cent likelihood of one of these diseases escaping from one of these
laboratories in just under every 13 years.
‘This level of risk is clearly
unacceptable,’ Klotz said.
However, Klotz’s work did not
take account of another danger — one that makes the risk of a
genetically manipulated virus breaking free from a lab even more
Even though the idea that, say,
militant Islamists, might break into laboratories to release strains
of H5N1 seems far-fetched, it is taken very seriously by
A visual representation of the H5N1
strain of bird flu. Even though the idea that, say, militant
Islamists, might break into laboratories to release strains of H5N1
seems far-fetched, it is taken very seriously by policymakers
In 2011, the U.S. National Science
Advisory Board for Biosecurity called for scientific papers on H5N1
to be censored, which caused fierce debate among scientists.
Because of such fears, in 2012 many
scientists voluntarily halted research on H5N1. The moratorium lasted
for a year, after which the virologists lifted it, stating that the
risks from not studying the virus were greater than those raised by
the virus falling into the wrong hands.
However, many scientists remain
deeply uncomfortable with the way some research is carried out on
H5N1. Those doubts are sure to be repeated with the latest
revelations about Professor Kawaoka.
Some, such as Professor Marc
Lipsitch, advocate what he calls ‘ethical alternatives’ to the
type of approach used by Kawaoka, in which more rigorous risk
assessments should be made.
‘In the case of influenza, we
anticipate that such a risk assessment will show that the risks are
unjustifiable,’ Professor Lipsitch states in a paper he published
But despite such calls from their
academic colleagues, Kawaoka and other scientists, such as Professor
Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, insist that what
they are doing is right, and maintain that their work is safe and
But as every scientist knows, there
is no such thing as a sure bet. There is always a chance that, one
day, someone will walk out of Professor Kawaoka’s laboratory in
Wisconsin feeling under the weather.
If that happens, then we must hope
and pray that those same scientists find a cure —before millions