I recently heard that scientists studying the H5N1 flu virus have altered it so that it has become much more contagious to humans. The story is available online from the New York Times via this link: http://is.gd/UjPDzw
The virus in its naturally occurring form (avian flu) is not very contagious to humans, but about half of the people who have caught it have died. The mutated version is described as being “highly transmissible” between humans and could be “transmitted in aerosols”.
The two groups of scientists who conducted the parallel experiments, one in the US and one in the Netherlands, were planning to publish scientific papers explaining their results until the US Government intervened and asked the journals not to publish details on the basis that doing so might increase the risk of bioterrorism.
Here is a link to the public statement released by Nature (one of the journals) explaining that the scientists concerned have agreed to pause research for 60 days: http://is.gd/qsKUwN
I must say that I find it very disturbing that scientists can take it upon themselves to conduct these experiments, assume some risk of the deadly virus escaping, and propose to publish an explanation – which would be publicly available – that would allow other people to replicate the experiment. Why do they think they have to do this, that they should do this?
I wish I could trust the scientists, but I have no idea who they are. I don’t know what their ethical positions or values are. Even if they have no intention of harming others, that doesn’t mean that harm can’t eventuate. Jim Garrison in his book Civilization and the Transformation of Power writes: “The next phase of human development will continue to reap the whirlwind of our God complex. Our Faustian Pact has not yet played out. We will continue to make incredible advances in science and technology and use our new-found powers for primitive, mostly selfish ends. The cruciform pattern of history desines us to re-enact new manifestations of our fallenness even as we continue laboriously to become more civilized.” (p342)
The word “fallenness” used by Garrison refers to the Christian theological concept of the Fall, but it is not necessary to believe in the Bible literally to apply the concept as a metaphor. Human beings have a dark side, which includes our egotism, selfishness, greed, fear, hatred and other ugly things, which warps our noblest intentions and affects our uses of our technical creations.
The “cruciform pattern” is a reference to the ideas of Carl Jung, who suggested, in the words of Garrison, that “everything in our experience is comprised of opposites, and all things evolve through time within a pattern of life, death and renewal.” (p.xxvii) That is why we find it difficult to be ethical. There are always competing reasons to do, or not do, any particular action, including a piece of scientific research.
Maybe I’m paranoid, but I think it’s just a matter of time before one of these virus mutation experiments goes wrong and most of us end up dead and whoever is left behind will be living in a dystopian hell that will make the Dark Ages look attractive.