Laurie Garrett is among my favorite science writers. She is, of course, the author of The Coming Plague and of Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. Ms. Garrett has written an alarming piece published by the Council on Foreign Relations concerning the bioweapons potential of influenza virus. Scary Near-Miss Shows Bioterrorism Vulnerabilities describes the following:
Shortly before Christmas, some genetic data was--as a matter of routine--posted with GenBank, a mammoth, publicly accessible computer repository located at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. No special phone calls were made, no alarms sounded. But the GenBank posting looked like the genetic code for a new, manmade killer influenza that was infecting pigs in South Korea. Fingers seemed to point to Pyongyang.
Before you have a heart attack, let me assure you that, two months later, it looks like the nightmare of weaponized super-flu did not happen this time. But the scenario that played out is probably pretty close to what might unfold in a genuine bioterrorism incident, and it reveals critical weaknesses in our global security system--or lack thereof.
In December, somebody from one of South Korea's veterinary schools did what hundreds of virus-hunters do the world over: he or she e-mailed to GenBank the genetic details of newly identified viruses. In this case, the posting said, six new strains of influenza had been found in local pigs. Each of the strains were genetically manipulated and contained genetic bits of an avian virus unlike those now prompting separate bird flu concerns.
Worse, there were large segments of a flu bug dubbed WSN/33, a human flu virus altered in 1933 in a laboratory by infecting mice, resulting in a strain that kills mouse brain cells. The original 1933 human virus was related to that which caused the 1918 pandemic flu, killing an estimated 50 million people. Nothing even remotely like the WSN/33 flu has circulated in the world since 1956, and this particular WSN-avian flu combination is not known to have ever occurred naturally, so most of the global population would have little or no immunity to the virus. Since neither the particular bird flu strain nor the WSN/33 flu were known to exist outside of laboratories, one Internet journal concluded that "these sequences could represent a military experiment that resulted in an unplanned release. Moreover, at this point, bioterrorism cannot be ruled out."
The World Health Organization's (WHO) influenza branch responded later in December, convening a teleconferenced meeting of flu experts to analyze the GenBank information and exchanging a flurry of e-mails. They concluded somebody had made a lab error. On January 27, the South Korean government confirmed a laboratory error had been made and promised to send samples of the six viruses to WHO's Hong Kong collaborative lab.