Monday, October 17, 2005

Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil in Tune?

While the fact that Bill Joy (the future doesn't need us and grey goo/nano bots will take over our jobs and consume our flesh) and Ray Kurzweil (The techno-rapture is near and we will all soon be immortal gods and live in cities on the moon) are in agreement over something may be one of the signs that the apocalypse is upon us, it will not be for the reason these gentlemen think.

Of the two, I am more inclined to be on Kurzweil's side of things, being a techno-optimist and seeing many of his arguments for the existence of an accelerating and self-reinforcing trend of technological advancement as an astonishingly profound observation (regardless of whether or not it culminates in the predicted "technological singularity"). Whereas I find Bill Joy's predictions of technology deciding that it hates us or that we are an annoyance to be somewhat improbable. The more intelligent and educated of our species tend to be less likely to want to wipe out other species. Why would this not be true of even more intelligent robo sapiens?

While both of these gentlemen may be knowledgeable technology pundits, it is important to remember that they are not medical or biology experts. When they call for the recently published genome for the 1918 influenza virus to be "unpublished" and for access to the data to be strictly controlled, they are not voicing the common view of the experts in these fields and I feel there is good reason to reject their suggestion.

Yes, it is easy to envision every doomsday cult from al-Qaida to Aum Shin what's-er-name in Japan not to mention individual loners getting hold of this data and cranking out the angel of death in a backyard lab. But the truth is that making a virus from scratch, even with all the known genes is not an easy thing to do.

Lets think for a moment about the type of person who would try to recreate the virus from scratch with evil intent. Someone wanting to create a lethal pandemic would need to be irrational enough to sacrifice their own people, whoever they may be. Sure there are no shortage of such individuals. They must also have the funding and resources to equip a lab with some pretty decent equipment without drawing attention to themselves. These two conditions do not overlap as much as Hollywood would have us believe. Even fairly insane nations are going to realize that creating a pandemic is going to piss off some really well armed people so we are down to a few Bin Laden wannabes. (Bin Laden before he wasted all his money trying to wage war with the world's only current superpower, not today's Bin Laden who is selling painted rocks to buy milk crates to make furniture for his dirt condo.)

Now lets look at the type of person who would be able to create the virus. You need to know more than a thing or two about biology. I am talking here about modern biology not the kind you get from reading nothing but the Koran or the Bible for 18 hours a day for 30 years. You need to be skilled in the use of specialized lab equipment and if you want to do this without killing yourself before you can deliver the virus to a significantly sized city or airport, you need to know how to handle infectious agents and have the equipment to do so. You also need to either share the fanatical desires of the person funding you or be the kind of person who can be easily blackmailed or bought. I think that people might be surprised how hard it is to get someone to cause a pandemic for you. While scientists are only human they are not less than human as many seem to believe. I don't have the required skill to do this but if I did and someone threatened my family or offered me billions I would tell them to deep throat my graduated cylinder. (That means no.) Sure, not every scientist who ever lived would say the same but finding someone with all the needed skills plus the motivation or malleability is not a project that would fit in a single season reality show like The Apprentice. Setting up a project to do all of this is expensive, dangerous, time consuming and carries no guarantee of success. The only doomsday cult that ever marshaled any kind of scientific and technical expertise was Aum Shin-Racquetball and their level of "expertise" was significantly exaggerated by the media.

But why take even this small risk? The 1918 flu stopped rather suddenly but that is no assurance that it is gone. In fact, it almost assuredly is not. It was found by scientists by digging up a flu victim who died and was buried in permafrost. How many other flu infected bodies are there in the arctic? How long would it have been before some psychotic history student (you know the type!) figured he would spend a summer with an ice pick and shovel in the high north trying to end the world? Or what about global warming bringing more people and housing to areas where permafrost is retreating? Not all graves from that time are well tended and well marked.

We have also learned that the 1918 flu was a bird flu and it did not merge with another to become infectious to humans. This means it could be remaining in some jungle or island population of birds just waiting for reintroduction. Having the sequence now means that we will be able to work on it now rather than when we are scrambling to catch up with it.

Not that the 1918 flu would likely be as bad today as it was back then.

"The public health risk of resurrecting the virus is minimal, US health officials said. People around the world developed immunity to the deadly 1918 virus after the pandemic, and a certain degree of immunity is believed to persist today. Also, in previous research, scientists concluded that modern antiviral medicines are effective against Spanish flu-like viruses."
While I am not sure how immunity would persist in the population it may have to do with the fact that some antibodies are passed to children through breast milk, plus the virus may have killed off the fraction of humanity who was most genetically susceptible to it. I have yet to complete my studies of the immune system so you would need to ask someone with an older lab coat than mine.

The other argument against keeping the virus genome on a "need to know" basis is simply that we want as many scientists working on these diseases as we can. The more people working on it the faster we will learn about it and the faster we can develop a vaccine. While it is most likely that the next pandemic will be the H5N1 virus which is currently spreading across the planet's wild bird populations, it is by no means certain. We do not have that many examples of high mortality causing flu and the last thing we should be doing is restricting access to the information needed to study them.

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