Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Ray Kurzweil: Visionary or Chump?

The irrepressible Ray Kurzweil has issued a startling ukase from his impregnable bunker atop Death Mountain. He's demanding the un-publishing of the genome for the flu virus that caused the 1918 pandemic.

This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.
I wonder if Kurzweil realizes that the designs for an atomic bomb are currently very easy to come by. I wonder if he's aware that the British government made its own plans public a couple of years ago.

As Revere points out, pandemic influenza is a lousy bioweapon (I'd go a step further and say that bioweapons are lousy weapons, period). The possibility that hands-on experiments with the virus will lead to an accidental release is far more worrisome than the threat of terrorism.
Yet despite the danger, researchers in the US are working with reconstructed versions of the virus at less than the maximum level of containment. Many other experts are worried about the risks. "All the virologists I have spoken to have concerns," says Ingegerd Kallings of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control in Stockholm, who helped set laboratory safety standards for the World Health Organization.
As a matter of fact, one team of U.S. researchers actually eased biosecurity precautions while working with the 1918 virus.

The Sunshine Report details other problems with flu research:
Influenza with as many as five 1918 flu genes, and which are potentially pandemic, have already been handled at labs in at least four places other than CDC, including labs in Athens, GA, Winnipeg, MB (Canada), Seattle, WA, and Madison, WI. With the exception of the Canadian lab, none of these facilities has maximum (BSL-4) biological containment, and it is a virtual certainty that more labs will begin 1918 flu work now.

In fact, the only possible source of a new 1918 influenza outbreak is a laboratory. The situation of the 1918 flu is not dissimilar to SARS, whose natural transmission is believed to have been halted. The experience with SARS accidents is chilling: It has escaped three different labs to date. A 1918 influenza escape would be very likely to take a higher human toll. The US biodefense program has also had a number of lab accidents since 2002, including mishandling of anthrax and plague and laboratory-acquired infections of tularemia. In Russia, a researcher contracted ebola and died last year.
Kurzweil doesn't seem to have given these issues any thought. In his opinion, we need more bioweapons research:
We also need a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made. There are promising new technologies, like RNA interference, that could be harnessed. We need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale.
Evidently, uncovering the voluptuous mysteries of the Singularity hasn't left Kurzweil with any time to read the goddamn newspaper. Readily available evidence indicates that a Manhattan Project for bioweapons is precisely what BushCo has been undertaking for years (and indeed, the term "Manhattan Project" may be apposite in its reference to the development of an offensive weapon).
According to Ari Schuler, an analyst at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, there has been $14.5 billion spent on civilian biodefense programs since 2001. The fiscal year 2005 budget is 18 times that of 2001. Adjusted for inflation, annual federal spending on biodefense is greater than money spent on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.
There's your "new Manhattan Project," Ray. Now, the next time you see the words "biodefense boom," you'll understand what they mean.

Funding for research into priority BW bacterial agents increased by 2388 percent in the last few years (funding for TB and HIV research was cut by 20 percent in the same period). New biocontainment labs are being built all over the country; chief among their stated purposes is "to provide Americans with effective therapies, vaccines and diagnostics for diseases caused by agents of bioterror." We've even returned to open-air vulnerability testing, using what we can only trust are harmless agents.

If Kurzweil knows any of this, it evidently doesn't impress him. While sensible people worry about BushCo's dangerous fixation on bioweapons, or the proliferation of hastily constructed biocontainment labs where accidents and sabotage are very real possibilities - or, more pertinently, the likelihood that a new, natural flu pandemic is imminent - Kurzweil ululates about the publication of the pandemic flu genome, and suggests that increased attention be paid to biodefense. It proves once again that one of terrorism's most insidious dangers is its destructive effect on human intelligence.

4 comments:

Speechless said...

I don't know beans about Ray Kurzweil, though I did look at his article. And all I think I know of Bird flu is what I've gleaned from Revere, Cervantes, and my father and grandmother's experience with the Spanish Influenza of 1918.

So, fool that I am, Joe Average public person, I guess I see Kurzweil's article as evidence of the maze of mirrors we're caught in. Once we thought we could trust our government, the press, the health establishment, hey even the pharmaceutical companies. It wasn't so long ago we had confidence in some of those institutions, but it's all gone. Now-- to mix hopelessly my metaphors--it feels like the tent of Society, once erected to protect us from the elements, has come undone, the stakes are loose, the guy lines undone. The tent is flapping in the breeze, and we are still trying to huddle beneath it, begining to consider that all we have is the shelter of those we hold dear.

Phila said...

Speechless,

Sounds about right to me.

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