Publish the flu recipe

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 17: For all modernity’s horrors, from the Blitzkrieg and death camps to genocidal famine, moral relativism, drug-resistant diseases, atomic weapons and terrorism, at least we haven’t yet seen effective biological warfare. So what sort of reckless idiot would consider publishing the recipe for a devastating man-made flu? My answer is, a wise and responsible one.

This story begins, as a news story, last September, when word began trickling out in scientific publications that researchers in Wisconsin and the Netherlands had created a strain of H5N1 that passes easily among ferrets. Why should you care unless you’re one of those odd people who keeps a ferret? Because H5N1 is an avian flu that rarely infects people but, when it does, kills nearly 60% of those who catch it, and because for reasons best known to scientists ferrets are similar to humans when it comes to flu.

How did the scientists do it? We don’t yet know (those who could understand it, I mean) and if the U.S. government has its way we won’t. They’ve asked scientific journals not to publish key details for fear that it will fall into the wrong hands. And unlikely as it sounds, this is a mistake.

My reason for taking that view has nothing to do with flu, or any sort of science. It’s because of a very basic security principle I first encountered in my teens reading magician John Scarne’s classic Scarne on Cards, which explains how to play every popular card game except Bridge. But first it explains how to cheat at cards, for the same reason that during World War II the U.S. military let Scarne explain it to GIs and sailors. Namely the bad guys already know.

To be sure, some would-be card cheats don’t know all the tricks, at least not yet, so explaining them may add a little bit to the arsenal of the villains. But it does way more for the good guys, because most of them know nothing about cheating. And once even a handful of honest soldiers in boot camp recognize the “mechanic’s grip” or the “second deal” it makes life much more difficult for the cheaters.

The same principle applies to biological warfare research. If it’s easy to make H5N1 that spreads readily among humans, bad guys will figure it out soon enough anyway. After all, that’s what they do. Virtuous medical researchers, or ones who are simply selfish and greedy, pursue all kinds of things from pure knowledge to pure profit. Bad guys relentlessly explore how to kill. And if some honest peaceful researchers have worked it out, it probably means the general state of science on the subject has brought it within range of other scientists including the evil kind.

So if good guys have stumbled on it first, be glad. And hope other good guys get the key information so they can learn to detect tell-tale signs that someone else is working on the problem, find ways to block the virus’s replication process or develop an effective vaccine.

If you’ve seen the movie Snakes on a Plane, by the way, you’ll understand why it’s important to get working on the issue right away: It’s little use asking the expert for advice once the vipers are loose because he’s sitting gruesomely dead in row 15.

In the face of any such deadly pandemic, we want the good guys working on it before it spreads, not only because of how many of us it will otherwise kill before they hit on a solution but because of how many of them it will kill so they never do hit on one. And when it comes to diseases, remember, natural as well as laboratory mutations can unleash pandemics and it would be a tragic mistake to keep knowledge of the problem from people who might devise a cure to foil mad scientists only to have Mother Nature go rogue on us on a Spanish flu or even Black Death scale.

It is of course true that loose lips sink ships. But they also sink U-boats. Free discussion is a potent weapon and, moreover, one available only to open societies. Having lots of smart, dedicated people tackling a problem from lots of angles is a really good way of solving it fast. And while it’s tempting to keep the public in the dark and let only experts share the secrets, an additional major benefit of free discussion is to keep expert orthodoxy from stifling innovation, and keep governments from hiding a problem from citizens until it’s too late.

In this case the academic motto “Publish or perish” is likely to be literally true. So tell us how the Frankenflu was made.

UncategorizedJohn Robson