Thursday, January 12, 2012

Will Humans Ever Learn? The Weaponizing of 'Doomsday' Bugs

In their paper ‘Galactic Civilizations: Population Dynamics and Interstellar Diffusion’ by William Newman and Carl Sagan, in Icarus, Vol. 46, June 1981, page 293, one suggestion made for why we detect no signals from advanced civilizations was that beyond a certain stage of their development, all advanced societies destroy themselves. Newman and Sagan weren't sure exactly when this occurred, but suspected probably within two generations of their inception of an atomic or nuclear phase. Since that commenced for humanity ca. 1945, and if one generation roughly equals 40 years, then that implies the flash point for danger would be as soon as 2025.

Of course, the end needn't necessarily be via nuclear weapons, though they are certainly the most destructive to consider. As one nuclear scientist put it, "the weapons we have can easily wipe out twice the world's population".

But an article appearing in a recent issue of The Economist (Dece. 31st, p. 63) spread the potential end via a wider net, focusing on the capacity to "weaponize" such nasties as smallpox and influenza. We already are aware, for example, that smallpox has been one of the worst scourges in human history - likely killing more humans through the centuries than all the wars combined. Yet, when humans had the chance to finally dispatch this monster, sending the remaining vials into the nearest incinerators, what did we see? Well, both the U.S. and the Russians decided to keep a number of vials on hand "just in case". In case of what? Further, so long as any such vials remain, no matter what the environs' safety protocols, every human is at risk of facing some weaponized version - engineered by a madman or terrorist freak.

Then there is influenza, which many might be tempted to treat with a big 'Ho-hum'. Boooooo-rrring! Not so fast! According to statistics released yesterday, on the top 15 causes of death, influenza now ranks 9th, ahead of suicide. And this is just the normal influenza.

Consider now two things that have transpired in the past 6 years that ought to send shivers down every living human's spine ( ibid.):

1) In 2005, researchers at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Maryland succeeded in reconstructing the Spanish Flu virus. This was the one that infected 500 million in 1917-18 at a time the global population was 1 billion, and killed 50 million of them. (In many cases, those infected died within 3 days of contracting it, of asphyxiation.) The reconstruction was made possible by retrieving some of the virus' DNA from buried Eskimos in Alaska who had been felled by it, then genetically engineering the remaining residual portions.

2) Two separate research teams at the University of Wisconsin -Madison and in Rotterdam, Holland have actually succeeding in developing (genetically) an airborne variant of H5N1 or the "Bird flu".

As The Economist notes, the fatality rate for H5N1 dating from 2003 when first uncovered in China has "been a staggering 60% of the cases detected worldwide". They noted:

"H5N1's toll would certainly have been greater had it not been for an important limitation. Unlike its Spanish sister it was not easily transmitted to humans. But if the virus ever evolved to hop nimbly from person to person (i.e. airborne) it too could wreak a pandemic".

By this point of the article one is tempted to breathe a sigh of relief, until the next line:

"That evolution has now occurred....."

Describing the basics of how the UWM and Rotterdam researchers used experiments on ferrets ("surprisingly good proxies to humans") to get the virus airborne, spreading infection merely via sneezes.

And if the H5N1 is hybridized with Spanish flu, or otherwise weaponized? In the case of a pandemic it could easily annihilate over 2.5 billion people, or at least rivalling a nuclear exchange of about 1,000 warheads from each side.

Why would thinking and supposedly intelligent humans even tempt fate by messing with such known killers and indeed, making them deadlier?

Perhaps the long dead aliens who never survived to a more advanced stage of their civilizations, as Newman and Sagan surmise, could answer that question.

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