Official response to the Ebola outbreak reached new heights today, as the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern – a status that allows them to issue recommendations for travel restrictions. “We’re going to see death tolls in numbers that we can’t imagine now,” Ken Isaacs, a vice president at the NGO Samaritan’s Purse, told a congressional hearing yesterday.
The attention on Ebola, and the urgent need for solutions, has focused attention on experimental treatments waiting in the wings – and ignited an ethical debate about whether giving untested drugs to patients is the best course of action.
Based on the most recent official reports, 1,712 people have been infected in the current outbreak. Nearly all of these cases have been in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, but another West African country, Nigeria, reports 9 infected people, one of whom died after flying from Liberia. Also, Saudi Arabia reported a likely case after a Saudi man died following a trip to Sierra Leone. And now, the two infected Americans, both stricken with the virus while helping victims in affected areas, have been flown to Atlanta to receive treatment. This will be achieved under special quarantine conditions at Emory University Hospital, where their body fluids will be handled using biohazard level 4 laboratory precautions in which scientists wear outfits resembling spacesuits.
It’s got lots of the trappings of similar science fiction plotlines, such as TNT’s The Last Ship, the topic of my previous post. On that series a viral pandemic, whose symptom profile looks eerily similar to that of Ebola, has killed off 80 percent of humanity. The fictional virus has managed this because it’s 100 percent contagious, nearly 100 fatal, and because the fictional scientists and physicians on the series have insufficient knowledge of the virus and no way to treat or even slow the disease. Such extreme situations facilitate nail-biting drama.
A United States Navy Destroyer is sent to the Arctic and ordered to radio silence for four months. During that time, a mysterious virus – 100 percent fatal and 100 percent contagious – spreads from isolated pockets in Africa and Asia into a pandemic. When radio silence ends and the captain and his 217 crew finally learn what’s going on, 80 percent of the human population is either dead or dying, and all government control has collapsed.
Unrealistic? Perhaps. But this is the setting of the TNT hit series The Last Ship. While that fictional virus may indeed be too lethal and spread too rapidly to be realistic, one thing this nail-biting, apocalyptic story should scare us into doing is to respond faster to viral outbreaks than we’ve been able to do in the past. The real-life models for this are two coronaviruses: Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV).
First identified in humans in 2012, MERS-CoV has since caused 572 laboratory-confirmed infections, 173 of which have been fatal, and yet clinicians have no drug that targets the virus specifically. The same is true of SARS. Despite some initial, anecdotal reports suggesting that the drug ribavirin might work against this virus, and some modest success with interferon (which has a general inhibitory effect against many viruses), there is no specific anti-SARS agent.
So whether we’re talking about a virus in real life that’s killed hundreds, or the unnamed, fictional virus from The Last Ship that’s killed billions, global and national health organizations can respond via several strategies.
Malcolm MacIver is a bioengineer at Northwestern University who studies the neural and biomechanical basis of animal intelligence. He also consults for sci-fi films (e.g., Tron Legacy), and was the science advisor for the TV show Caprica.
A few years ago, the world was aflame with fears about the virulent H5N1 avian flu, which infected several hundred people around the world and killed about 300 of them. The virus never acquired the ability to move between people, so it never became the pandemic we feared it might be. But recently virologists have discovered a way to mutate the bird flu virus that makes it more easily transmitted. The results were about to be published in Science and Nature when the U.S. government requested that the scientists and the journal withhold details of the method to make the virus. The journals have agreed to this request. Because the information being withheld is useful to many other scientists, access to the redacted paragraphs will be provided to researchers who pass a vetting process currently being established.
As a scientist, the idea of having any scientific work withheld is one that does not sit well. But then, I work mostly on “basic science,” which is science-speak for “unlikely to matter to anyone in the foreseeable future.” But in one area of work, my lab is developing new propulsion techniques for high-agility underwater robots and sensors that use weak electric fields to “see” in complete darkness or muddy water. This work, like a lot of engineering research, has the potential to be used in machines that harm people. I reassure myself of the morality of my efforts by the length of the chain of causation from my lab to such a device, which doesn’t seem much shorter than the chain for colleagues making better steels or more powerful engines. But having ruminated about my possible involvement with an Empire of Dark Knowledge, here’s my two cents about how to balance the right of free speech and academic freedom with dangerous consequences.
Consider the following thought experiment: suppose there really is a Big Red Button to launch the nukes, one in the U.S., and one in Russia, each currently restricted to their respective heads of government. Launching the nukes will surely result in the devastation of humanity. I’m running for president, and as part of my techno-libertarian ideology, I believe that “technology wants to be free” and I decide to put my money where my slogan is by providing every household in the U.S. with their very own Big Red Button (any resemblance to a real presidential candidate is purely accidental).
If you think this is a good idea, the rest of this post is unlikely to be of interest. But, if you agree that this is an extraordinarily bad idea, then let’s continue.