WASHINGTON — My father used to say if you have to think about something very long, you probably shouldn't do it. It's sound advice that the National Institutes of Health obviously didn't follow when it contracted for a study into the most viral strain of influenza.
Now it has a problem on its hands that is downright scary in this increasingly dangerous world. What the researchers in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin came up with could easily in the wrong hands pose a threat to every man, woman and child on the planet.
What they meant to do, apparently, was to keep tabs on a strain of bird flu to meet the challenge of future mutation. What they accomplished was an ability to make the strain, which rarely attacks humans at this point, into a highly transmissible killer that would thrill the heart of every "mad scientist" in literary history. You can almost hear the hysterically maniacal cackles.
Now the unanimous membership of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity must convince at least two prominent magazines -- Science published here and Nature printed in London -- not to report the specifics of how to replicate this monstrosity that apparently can be airborne through sneezing and other methods. Once in the air, there is no stopping it as proven by experimentation on a bunch of ferrets that passed it on to their brethren with ease.
Just so you know: If you haven't paid attention to the uproar that has descended through the media during one of the two holiest seasons in Christendom, the death rate from infection would range from 60 percent to 80 percent, an astounding pandemic dimension that should frighten us all. That is particularly so when the possibility of an intentional misuse of this poison is very real in a world increasingly subjected to terrorism. Even an accidental release of the virus would be devastating.
That is what drove the advisory board to plead for caution in any discussion of the blueprints for H5N1 -- the designation assigned to this particular flu bug.
And well it should have, even if it comes in the face of general reluctance to censor the scientific achievements and there are some scientists who say there is nothing to fear here. Pardon me if I am not convinced. Any chance is too much. Have these guys never heard of Osama bin Laden and the crazies he inspired around the globe before meeting his demise?
Why these magazines or anyone else has any say in how this material is presented is beyond me. The money that brought this about came from the U.S. taxpayers and that in my book at least should make the results U.S. government property and not subject to any outside claims or control. He who sponsors the research should clearly own the product.
This whole thing is not about censorship but about the public welfare and how to protect it. Quite clearly, the decision to conduct this study, now being condemned in any number of scientific quarters, was made in an atmosphere devoid of common sense. The initial reasons for conducting the studies don't come close to offsetting the damage the virus could wreak on society as we know it. That might also have been said about the atomic bomb except it was developed to end a war that without it would have caused tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of more deaths. The steps taken beyond that initial development are not as clear-cut.
Clearly thinking ahead was not a strong suit of those within the National Institutes of Health, which approved the project and financed it. Granting that the magazines and others who want to publicize the details may now be having second thoughts -- as they should -- doesn't mean that someone somewhere won't do what they agree not to. The security board has said it would not object to a simple narrative of the dangers, just not the formula for concocting this deadly virus.
It seems to me that someone should step in quickly and shut down any dissemination of the results, even those said to be benign explanation of why the research was conducted. It may be too late. What were these guys thinking?
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at [email protected]