Evil Science, Part I: Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka open the H5N1 Pandora’s Box and try to spill its contents.
Having spent a good part of my career in the neurosciences, I still consider myself a scientist, however washed-up or faded. And as a scientist, I have often pondered the question: When does science become evil? I guess the glib answer is: Whenever it harms people or our planet.
The problem with the glib answer is that it is too short-sighted. Pandora’s box, once pried open, stays open forever. A scientific discovery may be predominately beneficial to mankind as of today, and so it would be judged not evil, but tomorrow the same discovery may unleash untold horrors. That’s the thing about Pandora’s box – all the stuff that’s in there doesn’t necessarily come pouring out as soon as the box is opened. It may take generations.
Take the Manhattan Project of four generations ago. Many people would argue that the science that led to Little Boy and Fat Man could not be considered evil because those bombs brought an immediate end to the much greater evil of the Japanese attempts to conquer the world. Evil is relative. If Evil A is less evil than Evil B, then Evil A is good. Isn’t it?
Maybe. But to me the better answer to the question When is science evil? is that evil science is not just science that is proven to harm people, but any discovery that has a greater potential for harm than for good, or a potential for greater harm than good. By this criterion, I do not hesitate to conclude that the Manhattan Project was evil science, and those who participated in it were evil scientists. Even if the world destroys every last nuke tomorrow, the knowledge required to start over is still out there and can never put back in the box. The potential for catastrophe is perpetual.
Already in 2012 we have two examples of new perpetual potentials for catastrophe – what I consider clear examples of evil science. I look at one these in this post, and the other next time.
Late last year the first such evil discovery was announced by as evil a pair of scientists – applying the above criterion – as one could hope to find: Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at U. Wisconsin (Madison) and U. Tokyo. What these virologists did was to take a deadly avian flu, H5N1, and make it even deadlier for humans – so deadly that some have estimated it could kill 50% of all humans, gauging from how lethal the “old” H5N1 is known to be. Essentially, they took the wild-type H5N1 and mutated it so that it is easily transmitted from human to human, without going through a bird intermediary.
Here, in Founcier’s own words, is what they were trying to do . . . and did:
We were of course working to find out exactly which mutations cause the virus to become transmissible by aerosol. That is going to stop now; we were almost done with that, but not quite. We were working to find out which biological properties of the virus are associated with the mutations that we have found. The biological properties of the virus are really more important than the mutations themselves. . . .we said we thought there were a number of things that might make an avian influenza virus transmissible between mammals. At the time, that was purely hypothetical. We said the virus probably has to do better in the upper respiratory tract than deep inside the lungs; it must bind to certain mammalian receptors; it has to reproduce in large amounts, to increase chances of transmission; it has to be stable in small droplets, and so on. . . . [n]ow that we have these mutations, we can look at each of these steps to see if they occur. And you will see that for each step, there are multiple options, more possible mutations than just the ones we have found so far. So that’s very important.
Evil scientists always rationalize their science. They have to unless they are privately funded or funded by evil governments. True to form, Fouchier glibly rationalizes building a virus that has the potential to kill 50% of all humans. Just formulating a rationalization for such a monster takes enormous chutzpah. What is his rationale? Well, . . . according to Fouchier, the up-side is that now that we have this monster, we can produce vaccines to it. That’s like rationalizing the Manhattan Project on the grounds that it gave people an excuse to build bomb shelters.
What Fouchier is not saying is that it is not just his particular strain of H5N1 that is a threat. There are potentially dozens of other similar strains, many of which would not react with any vaccine to Fouchier’s strain.
What Fouchier is trying to unleash on the world – if the US and other governments are not able to stop him – is not the virus itself but the knowledge of how to build similar monsters. This Pandora’s box is now wide open, thanks to these two guys. Even if miracously none of their information gets out, it is now clear that it is possible and “easy,” in Fouchier’s words, to produce H5N1 that transmits human to human. Those who want such a beast now know they can make it. The damage is not in the specific viruses he has produced, but in the information. If these guys are so stupid that they can’t see that, they need to be taken out of all scientific endeavours. Maybe locked up.
In closing, I am reminded, with great apprehension, of the “Baxter accident” of Feb, 2009, when vaccine manufacturer Baxter’s Austrian lab “accidentally” sent out vaccine samples to 18 countries containing live H5N1 viruses. The mere thought of what could happen with Fouchier’s lethal strain in the hands of such idiots is too horrible to contemplate.