All the hand-wringing about "mutant," "more deadly" forms of H7N9 has induced a relapse of my own chronic stark insensibility, rendering me as indifferent as a snoring narcoleptic to whatever the imminent danger is supposed to be.
Maybe I posted too often about the original debate on "dual-purpose" H5N1 research. It starred the same sinister duo of Fouchier and Kawaoka, who were considered casual meddlers in What Mankind Was Not Intended to Know.
God knows we have plenty of nefarious government agencies, but they seem quite content to to launch drone strikes on Afghan wedding parties or spy on our amorous email, rather than going to the trouble of devising and releasing an unreliable bug.
As for accidental release, maybe so. Marie Curie, in her researches into radium, absorbed enough radiation to die of anemia; she also dumped serious quantities of radioactive waste into the Paris sewer system, with perhaps unhappy results on French persons (and rats) downstream. Nevertheless, France survived radium and the Nazis, and lovers stroll along the banks of the Seine.
Knowing what we do today, we can be confident that non-suicidal researchers will do as good a job of containing H5N1 or H7N9 as they do with any other potentially lethal virus or bacterium.
The purpose of such research, after all, is to figure out the abilities of those viruses. Maybe, no matter how you tweak them, they will remain stupidly loyal to the avian hosts they evolved in. But if they can be tweaked to attack humans and other mammals with any efficiency, knowing how they could do it would be critical in thwarting them.
Suppressing such research in any case is pointless: Some nefarious government agency would always find a few hungry post-docs to do the dirty work under deep cover, just as the US Army for 20 years funded experiments in "remote viewing" (clairvoyance) to spy on the Soviets. (They did so because they thought the Soviets were already remotely viewing the US. I wish I were making this up.)
Over the eight years I've run this blog, I've measured out my life not in coffee spoons but in reading the trite expressions "experts fear" and "no need to panic." I'd rouse from my stark insensibility more often if news reports told us "experts completely surprised and baffled yet again."
H5N1 came out of nowhere in 1997, vanished until 2003, and has continued to pick off a tiny, unlucky minority ever since. H1N1 completely blindsided us all in 2009, sickened millions, and continues to kill many in countries of no interest to the North American media, like India and Venezuela.
H3N2 makes going to the pig barn at a US county fair a matter of taking your life in your hands. MERS, which for centuries may have made life unpleasant for some camels, has suddenly killed a few unlucky Arabs. And H7N9, having never troubled the sleep of even the most anxious of virologists, arrived less than six months ago and blindsided us all again.
If nothing else, these viruses are patiently trying to get our attention. We should see their attacks not as threats but as opportunities: to learn something about a form of life that understands us far better than we understand it. For the first time in human history we have a chance to seize that opportunity. We'd be as stupid as the viruses themselves to turn it down.