Swine Flu: Smoking Pig or Sneezing Gun?
In what appears to be the first mainstream admission that the Swine Flu might well be of human creation, Bloomberg reports on an Australian researcher (a plant virologist) who suspects that the infection may have arisen from a vaccination laboratory, by mistake of course:
[Emeritus Professor] Adrian Gibbs, 75, who collaborated on research that led to the development of Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu drug, said in an interview that he intends to publish a report suggesting the new strain may have accidentally evolved in eggs scientists use to grow viruses and drugmakers use to make vaccines. Gibbs said he came to his conclusion as part of an effort to trace the virus’s origins by analyzing its genetic blueprint.
A similar theory existed for Avian influenza. That is, that it leaked from a laboratory in China by mistake (of course), possibly from a biological weapons laboratory. For those out there who had some kind of notion that nobody was developing biological weapons anymore, then you ought to surf Google more!
Yes, this virus strain could be a case of mistaken release of a partially attenuated pathogen, but what, pray tell, are supposedly legitimate pharmaecutical companies doing with these unusual and, dare we suggest, practically off-limits viral RNA in their possession? Why did this virus start off in pigs in Mexico?
We discussed earlier how the theory that this virus is natural is an implausible one, that three viral strains (as originally reported) do not simply combine in vivo without leaving a very obvious train of precursor strains. We also discussed, jokingly, how the virus outbreak may have been no mistake (something that requires constant consideration, as there are many plausible motives). The facts are now beginning to fall into place, but this most intriguing of mysteries is still not close to being solved.
Swine flu has infected 5,251 people in 30 countries so far, killing 61, according to the WHO. Scientists are trying to determine whether the virus will mutate and become more deadly if it spreads to the Southern Hemisphere and back.
So far the mortality rate stands at 0.6%, which is nowhere near that of Spanish Flu, and is roughly equal to the annual death rate in Australia. That’s actually a lot of deaths, but still nothing to be particularly worried about. It needs to be borne in mind that most of the deaths occurred in Mexico, which does not have the same underlying health, demographics and climate as most of the developed world. Update: 17/5/09 – It is estimated that more than 100,000 infections have occurred in the U.S, and given the death rate so far.
If Dr. Gibbs is correct, which it appears he is, then it should be possible to find out exactly which laboratory produced the pathogen. Possible, of course, does not mean easy. Those working in biological research laboratories, especially those working with dangerous organisms, are in a particularly vulnerable situation. Not only do they need to be very careful how they handle the microbes, but they must take special care with the information they collect and be mindful as to how that information is likely to be used. No profession is without ethical dilemmas.
Bloomberg’s article goes on:
In addition, his research found the rate of genetic mutation in the new virus outpaced that of the most closely related viruses found in pigs, suggesting it evolved outside of swine, Gibbs said. Some scientists have speculated that the 1977 Russian flu, the most recent global outbreak, began when a virus escaped from a laboratory.
Gibbs said he has no evidence that the swine-derived virus was a deliberate, man-made product.
“I don’t think it could be a malignant thing,” he said. “It’s much more likely that some random thing has put these two viruses together.”
Well, everybody is innocent until proven guilty. It is also quite correct to say that this virus is unlikely to be a biological weapon, because its lethality is so low. Nonetheless, this virus has the potential to cause as much death and morbidity as did the Chernobyl reactor disaster of 1986 – an event that partly triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union. Should the origins of this virus turn out to be one of an established superpower, or an emerging one, it could well spur some seizmic shifts on a political level.