In 1918 - 1920, the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people. While contemporaneous records of this particular type were not kept back then, estimates indicate that up to a third of the world's population at the time were infected - the math would indicate, then, that anywhere from 3 - 6% of the world's population died in this pandemic. In smaller countries where medical treatment wasn't as advanced, death rates as a percentage of population were much higher: in Samoa, the disease killed 20% of the population in just two months.
So naturally, someone decided it would be a grand idea to recreate that virus in a lab today.
It does strike me as a bit odd that this research is being conducted just down the road in Madison, yet I found out about it only through an article in a British publication.
This same scientist previously did research on the H5N1 virus - a strain of avian flu that is deadly to humans, but thankfully, not easily passed from person to person. The point of his research? To make it more easily transmissible.
His is not the only study, by any means, and certainly not the first. Since the early 2000s victims of the pandemic have been dug up (preferably those who died in northern climes, where their bodies remained frozen) for samples, and the bits and pieces of the virus isolated, mutated and studied.
Even other scientists don't agree that this is a good idea. From the linked article:
“This is a risky activity, even in the safest labs. Scientists should not take such risks without strong evidence that the work could save lives, which this [study] does not provide,” Professor Lipsitch said.I'm not against scientific inquiry by any means, but I do think that we need to pay a whole lot more attention to the moral, ethical and common sense aspects of any given quest. The question should not just be "can we..." but "should we...". The most secure lab in the world cannot stop one fruitcake bent on mayhem.
Robert Kolter, professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, said: “The scientists doing this work are so immersed in their own self-aggrandisement, they have become completely blind to the irresponsibility of their acts. Their arguments in favour of such work, i.e. increase ability for surveillance, remain as weak as ever.”
One is all it takes.
I'm willing to bet that the "pestilence" portion of the destruction of a quarter of the world's population will be via something "accidentally" released from a research lab.