A Dutch team's efforts to get ready for any H5N1 bird flu pandemic - by making a potentially human-virulent strain via genetic engineering to study its behavior in lab animals - has gotten intermittent examination in news reports. Among the first reports, and perhaps the very first, in the latest news crop was an NPR blog by Nell Greenfieldboyce on November 17. She reported efforts by the Dutch team to publish details in an open journal. You'd think they were preparing to provide the cookbook recipe for the end of civilization. Ah, maybe they are. A few outlets are portraying it that way and few articles are constructed to allay fears. Her report was followed fairly quickly by a longer, feature-style report at ScienceInsider Nov. 23 by Martin Enserink, who wrote of the now-emerging media storm that scientists fear to be on the way. He does nothing to fend off fear, declaring that if the Dutch virus got loose it could change world history. Taken literally, everything changes history. But one takes this passage to mean something epochal.
This is a second bounce. The tale has been public for awhile, as Enserink noted via links in his ScienceInsider account. In late September in New Scientist Deborah MacKenzie helped get the ball rolling. She related how the researchers first modificed the wild virus to be more lethal, then kept an infection going in laboratory ferrets while looking for spontaneous variants that were not only lethal but had spread on their own from one ferret to another. Soon enough, one arose. Some sources told MacKenzie the exercise is frightening, others told her that ferrets are not people and that if the virus could, given just five mutations, transform itself into a large scale threat to human health it would probably have done so without help. Also reporting that round of news, all from a conference in Malta, was Scientific American via its reporter Katherine Harmon, who used the then-new movie Contagion as a hook. One of the researchers, she reports, himself told her the series of tests was "really, really stupid." The primary theme one finds in Harmon's story is not however that a man-made version is the prime threat. That comes from the implied ability of the wild virus to remake itself, eventually, with potentially large impact on public health.
The storm appears to be building. Other, Recent Stories:
- Huffington Post - Timothy Stenovec: Bird Flu: Scientists Develop New Strain of H5N1, Avian Influenza, That Could Kill Millions ; Nothing original, as it is a pastiche of (credited) reports from other outlets.
- Forbes - Rick Ungar: Scientists Create Lethal Human Strain of Avian Flu in Test Tube - Now Seek to Publish Formula For How It's Done ; Another mashup, and it identifies one of its sources as "Scientist Magazine," an apparent reference to Science and to its ScienceInsider specifically.
- Daily Mail (UK) 'Anthrax isn't scary at all compared to this': Man-made flu virus with potential to wipe out many millions if it ever escaped is created in research lab ;
- RT (Russia) Man-made super-flu could kill half humanity ;
- Gizmodo: Engineered Avian Flu Could Kill Half the World's Humans ;
- DutchNews: Expert unease over deadly flu virus 'created' in Dutch laboratory;
- The Blaze (ie Glenn Beck et al) Liz Klimas: Pandemic Possible? Scientist Genetically Modifies Bird Flu With Scary Results ;
On the other hand, there is this:
- The Atlantic - Adam Clark Estes: Reasons Not to Panic About the Latest Ultra-Deadly Flu ; There is less below the hed than implied. The story wanders from ordinary seasonal flu to H5N1's potential, and into the comfort of knowing that CDC is staffed by very smart people. Not much of a thread.
It is not very clear in these reports exactly what the researchers want to publish. An actual recipe, with gene sequences of the mutations that they found sufficient to make the virus nerve-wracking? Or something more general on the general lessons in discovery that similar transformation may not be so difficult in nature?
- Charlie Petit