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The Newest Beasts Of The Earth

from the January 03, 2012 eNews issue



At the end of Planet of The Apes (1968), Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison trot down the beach, where they famously see the charred remains of the Statue of Liberty and realize that the planet the apes are ruling is actually Earth. In the 2011 reboot, biotech researchers have produced a genetically engineered virus that increases the intelligence of both humans and apes. A stronger version of the virus is lethal to humans, however, and has the potential to wipe out the world's human population – answering the question of how future astronaut Charlton Heston eventually finds a post-apocalyptic Earth run by apes.

Is there a virus capable of truly deleting the majority of humanity on the planet? Does a microscopic bug exist with the perfect combination of immune-system defiance, easy transmission, and a just-long enough incubation period for those infected to unwittingly pass it on before it kills them dead? Guaranteed, there are folks hunting for such a monster, and if they can't find it in nature, they hope to build it.

H5N1
The bird flu strain that killed a 39-year-old Chinese bus driver on New Year's Eve was not spread from human to human, according to a statement from China's Shenzhen Disease Control Center. The recent infection, like ones that caused other human deaths by bird flu, came from contact with diseased poultry. "Though it is highly pathogenic to human beings, the virus can not spread among people," said the statement. "There is no need for Shenzhen citizens to panic."

Researchers in Wisconsin and The Netherlands, however, have tweaked the genetic code of the H5N1 virus to make it airborne. Infected ferrets have spread the modified virus to each other, raising the uncomfortable possibility that it could be quickly transmitted between humans as well. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) stated on December 20 that the H5N1 researchers were free to publish the results of their study, but were not permitted to release a description of the process by which they produced the virulent new strain, except to a very trusted list of researchers.

Should bioterrorists learn how to manufacture this deadly bug and release it into a targeted human audience, it is expected it would be wildly difficult to stop the ensuing pandemic. The H5N1 has a death rate of about 50 percent, which is extremely high, almost 20 percent higher than that of smallpox fifty years ago.

What would possess researchers to purposely develop an airborne version of a deadly disease?

Flu viruses are notorious for their quick-mutating ways, which is why our immune systems have to adapt to the newest versions every year. The scientists at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been seeking to get a step up on this potentially lethal virus so that they can find ways to conquer it before it does show up naturally in the general population. Virologist Ron Fouchier at the Rotterdam lab was amazed to see how few genetic changes it took to develop the airborne version of H5N1. From Fouchier's point of view, his work has helped the world appreciate how dangerous this virus truly is, encouraging countries with high rates of infection to take urgent steps to eradicate it.

In fact, there are a number of scientists who resent the government's effort to restrict access to the research. Knowing the steps the flu virus can take to reach airborne transmissibility could give those monitoring the bird flu the ability to recognize when it gets close to a pandemic form. It would give other labs the opportunity to further experiment and find ways to treat and prevent the spread of this potentially lethal virus.

On the other hand, the more bird flu floating around, the greater the possibility it could get out, whether by accident or design.

Bioterrorism:
Bioterrorists do not need an airborne version of the bird flu to kill large numbers of people. There are plenty of easier, less expensive ways to do it. The ricin toxin or anthrax can be made in one's shed and don't require a sophisticated lab. Top of the line facilities are needed for purity and to avoid contamination. Bioterrorists, though, do not necessarily care whether their particular biological agent is contaminated. They're not trying to get FDA approval, after all.

The mechanisms of genetic engineering are no longer a big mystery, and even sophomores in high school biology can run experiments in which they add genes to bacteria.  It takes time and/or automation to try out a large number of genetic possibilities, but a dangerous bug is not necessarily hard to create. What's more, after the Soviet Union fell, those who were experts in biotechnology needed jobs, available to be hired by those who had the money and interest.

If a bioterrorist's goal is to cause panic and gain attention, then the terrorist just needs to mail envelopes with white powder that could be anthrax… or… chalk dust. If the purpose is to harm a political enemy, then an airborne virus is a poor weapon, since it can spread across borders to other countries not intended for abuse, including the terrorist's home country.

If, however, the bioterrorists' goal is to cull the human population as a whole, then it would be ideal to use an easily transmitted and deadly virus like that offered in an airborne version of H5N1. If humanity itself is the terrorist's enemy, then it doesn't matter which international borders a pathogen crosses or which tribes and nations are affected.

Would-be bioterrorists do face a major hurdle if they want to infect the human population with a destructive super bug; they need a working space where they themselves can be safe from whatever it is they are cooking up. An airborne virus is a dangerous pathogen to those who work in the lab where it is being developed, and enjoying biosafety of that caliber can get expensive and requires equipment that raises the sorts of red flags that the FBI and Homeland Security and Interpol tend to notice. 

Our Safety:
In Revelation, we find the pale [chloros, green] horse as one of the four horsemen:

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. -Revelation 6:8

We usually infer that the "beasts of the earth" are of the four-footed kind; we rarely include in our perspective the possibility that they might be microbial. There are many passages that may take on a different complexion when viewed from the vantage point of the current technological revolution in genetics, and the potential Bibilical implications are provocative.

In these uncertain times, more than ever we need to put all our trust and comfort and faith in the person of Jesus Christ and the love of a God who has all of our hairs numbered. Our job is not to fear, but to trust wholly in Him.  Whether dealing with deadly diseases or simply crossing the street, He is our true source of safety.

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. (Psalm 91:5-10)

Related Links

- Variola Virus (Smallpox) - UPMC Biosecurity
- China: Bird Flu Death Not From Human-Human Spread - AP
- A Public Policy Expert Looks at the Bird Flu Threat - The New York Times
- Debate Persists on Deadly Flu Made Airborne - The New York Times
- Call To Censor Flu Studies Draws Fire - Nature
- Global Pestilence - Koinonia House

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