North Korea’s ambitions and creation of a deadly flu

Posted Dec. 26, 2011, at 11:41 a.m.

Western intelligence agencies have been warning for years about the terrible consequences that would ensue if Iran were to get nuclear weapons. Better bomb the place before they do.

But North Korea already has nuclear weapons and now they are falling into the hands of a young man whose main qualification for office is that he is less weird than his half-brother, who was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport to visit Disneyland Tokyo.

The North Korean story has got a lot of play in the international media in the last few days, partly because Kim Jong-un is such an obvious misfit for the job of “Great Successor.” What gives the story legs, however, is North Korea’s nuclear weapons (both of them), its huge army (fifth biggest in the world), and its insanely belligerent rhetoric.

A mere two nuclear weapons, so primitive and clumsy that they are probably only deliverable by truck, could not be used for an attack. Their only sensible purpose is to deter an attack, and North Korea’s not very credible even in that role. All very well, the intelligence analysts say, but what if the people who control the weapons are crazy?

So we have, on the one hand, these not very convincing official claims, loyally repeated by Western media, that the latest dynastic succession in North Korea might “destabilize” northeastern Asia, even lead to a local nuclear war. And on the other hand, we have this modest biolab in the Netherlands that has fabricated an ultralethal variant of the bird flu virus and plans to publish its results.

The Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam is a long way from the secret underground lairs where James Bond-style villains hatched their evil plans, and Dr. Ron Fouchier, lead researcher in the H5N1 experiment, does not look a bit like Dr. No. In fact, Fouchier is a decent man who means well. Yet what he has made is far more dangerous than North Korea’s bombs.

When the H5N1 virus first appeared in 1996, there was a global panic, for it killed about 60 percent of the people it infected. The panic subsided when it turned out the virus could only be spread by very close physical contact between people.

It would have been very different if the virus had been as infectious as the common cold, which is usually spread by tiny water droplets coughed out by the infected person. Since H5N1 was not an “airborne” virus, it killed only a few hundred people, not a few hundred million — but viruses can mutate. How easy would it be for H5N1 to mutate into an “airborne” global killer?

That’s the question Dr. Fouchier set out to answer. He caused deliberate mutations in the virus and then repeatedly passed it manually from one lab animal to another — and quite soon, he had what he was looking for — an airborne version.

That was the point of the experiment, of course. The research, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, was intended to discover just how likely such a mutation of the virus was. Nobody seemed to mind that this involved creating exactly that virus — and, if normal scientific practice is followed, publishing the full genetic sequence of the mutated virus in a scientific journal.

Fouchier’s paper already has been submitted to the scientific journal Nature, and the results of a parallel experiment were submitted to Science.

The U.S. government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has just ordered key details of the research to be omitted before publication, so terrorists cannot use the information to create their own global quick-killer virus. The exact gene sequences and the exact details of the experiments will therefore be known only to the few hundred people who already have seen them. No doubt they can all be trusted.

But this is a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. There are probably several terrorist organizations and dozens of governments that can duplicate Fouchier’s research now that they know how he did it.

There are more frightening things in the world than wonky North Korean dictators.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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