H5N1: Vonnegut’s vision almost realized

Alan Duff

I don’t want the world to end in 2012. That would put a stop to a lot of plans I have, like getting a college degree, going cow tipping and seeing “The Hobbit Part II.”

Which is why, when I heard that scientists were playing Frankenstein with an altered version of the 2009 flu virus commonly dubbed “swine flu” — to the disapproval of pig farmers everywhere — I began to think the Mayans really were psychic.

In January, news began surfacing that scientists had taken a deadlier virus related to the H1N1 virus that the World Health Organization called “a public health emergency of international concern.” The media had an absolute field day.

The scientists were experimenting with the H5N1 virus to see if the flu strain H5N1 could be mutated to spread to mammals through air. They succeeded.

In response to their findings the government asked Science and Nature not to publish their findings so that a panel could go through and analyze the threat the information poses to public health if terrorists were to use it.

Their findings included the methods for creating the airborne version of the virus, which has proven to be many times more deadly than the flu virus that killed millions during the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic.

While I understand that scientific precautions should be made in situations like this when the virus could mutate to this more dangerous form in the wild, but this seems like the beginning of just another epidemic in which millions could die if this information gets out.

I’m not saying that this kind of research should not be pursued — far from it, in fact. We need scientists that care enough about the fate of humanity to ask these kinds of questions and anticipate these kinds of threats to ensure that we remain safe.

At the same time though, I understand the United States government’s apprehension to have these studies fully publicized.

There is a reason trade secrets exist. The information that teaches a person how to create a deadly airborne virus probably shouldn’t be available to everyone solely because it’s cool and neat from a scientific perspective. Scientists need to have some concern for what they create and the consequences of their research.

We cannot have laboratories full of scientists that have no concern for how their research and findings will impact the world. This is an issue that is becoming more apparent as our technology advances further and further.

From the atomic bomb and particle accelerators to genetically modified viruses, it’s an idea that we must consider as new information pours into the globalized world.

This is a problem that the famous novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. commented on and reflected on in his book “Cat’s Cradle” in which — spoiler alert — a scientist creates an altered water structure known as Ice-9 that ends life of Earth. The novel reaches this tragic end because the scientist’s only concern was for science and not the consequences of his research.

What’s even more terrifying is that Vonnegut admitted in an interview with The Nation that the scientist in “Cat’s Cradle” was based on a real-life scientist who was “absolutely indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he dug out of the rock and handed out to whoever was around.”

Despite all of the potential problems with this development, I believe the scientists who worked on H5N1 were deeply aware of the impact their research could have on our world. We need more people concerned with humanity’s fate.

I simply question whether a guide to creating a deadly airborne virus should be published, and support the U.S. government’s decision to hold this information from the broader public.