Columns / Discourse / January 11, 2012

Voice of Reason: Of pandemics and people

Politics is a field in which it is tremendously easy to lose sight of the big picture. We can spend long periods of time debating what precisely Rick Santorum’s poll numbers in New Hampshire mean on any given day and maybe what that means for the election in November, but rarely do we stop and think about how the actions of government can make a difference in five years, let alone 50 or 500.

Yet they do. This is why the most important news story of the break might have been one that had nothing to do with dead Korean tyrants or what Herman Cain was hitting on. Instead, it involved researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, who successfully bioengineered the H5N1, or bird flu, virus to make it highly contagious among humans.

Up to this point, it has been a great stroke of luck for humanity that the virus has not evolved to become capable of human-to-human contact. The swine flu pandemic of a few years ago, which had such capabilities but was caused by a different virus, showed how fast influenza epidemics can spread in the modern world.

That virus had a mortality rate of about 0.1 percent. The great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 that killed over 50 million people in a far less globalized world had a mortality rate of about 20 percent.

The modified H5N1 virus has a mortality rate of 60 percent, making it easy to see just what the consequences of an outbreak would be. As a result of this, American authorities took the highly unusual step of asking leading scientific journals to not publish the results of the experiments. In a world where Congress cannot decide on what to name post offices because of partisan gridlock, it was refreshing to read a story about government making a responsible decision for the safety of future generations.

There are certainly those in the world who would very much like to top 1918. Numerous terrorist groups have expressed interest in biological weapons, and a few, such as the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrinkyo, have actually attempted attacks.

Previously, such efforts have been amateurish at best, but the world cannot count on incompetent terrorists forever. Just because the risk of such an attack being pulled off is low does not mean that we shouldn’t be doing everything possible to lower it further.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer, who I generally consider a conservative hack to the highest degree, recently wrote about the implications of the government’s decision in a way that really made me realize why it was important.

He discussed Fermi’s Paradox, physicist Enrico Fermi’s famous question regarding why, when there statistically should be all sorts of intelligent life in the universe, we’ve never made contact with any of it. Given the number of planets in the entire universe that could theoretically support life, it is rather odd no one has ever managed to get in contact with us.

A variety of solutions to the paradox has been proposed, with the most intriguing being the position taken by Krauthammer and others (Carl Sagan most famously), namely that there have been many other societies much like ours, but it is inherent in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.

In this view, industrial society is nothing but a galactic blink of an eye and the chances of another civilization hitting that stage at the same time as Earth are small enough to explain why E.T. hasn’t called.

This is by no means to claim that a super virus will wipe out civilization anytime soon. It is simply a call to realize that technology will only become more dangerous and these questions only will become more important.

I don’t even know enough about biology to say for sure that the government made the right call. What I do know is that we must never allow the flotsam and jetsam of the news cycle to let us forget what the stakes in politics really are.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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