Scientific hubris at its worst

Does the world need a deadly new supergerm? Yeah, right

The news that scientists have created a deadly avian-flu virus that can be transmitted through the air is like something out of a horror movie—Contagion come to life.

The avian-flu virus, also known as H5N1, is bad enough as it is. It’s killed more than half the 600 people who have contracted it. Its single saving grace is that it’s hard to catch and almost never passes from person to person.

For reasons only they understand, however, scientists have now created a genetically modified version of the virus that passes in the air. It was tested on ferrets, whose respiratory virus receptors are much like those of humans, with dire results for the animals.

How dangerous would the virus be if it escaped from a lab? Consider the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide. Its fatality rate was somewhere around one in nine—that is, for every nine people who got the flu, one died. With H5N1, the rate is one in two.

Many respected scientists have spoken out against the genetic modification, saying it never should have been done. One called H5N1 “the ultimate organism as far as destruction of population is concerned.”

The scientists behind the supergerm offer several reasons for creating it: to show that it could develop in nature; to convince officials in countries where the virus is circulating in birds that they should take urgent steps to eradicate it; and to help scientists who monitor bird flu to recognize when a strain starts to develop pandemic potential.

These reasons aren’t worth the risk. Indeed, the project seems like scientific hubris at its worst. The best thing that can be done with these genetically modified supergerms is to destroy them.

Beyond that, there should be some way for the public to know when scientists—and especially government-funded scientists—are taking such risks with public health. The lack of controls over such endeavors is scary.