There are days that I can say and mean it from the bottom of my heart: science is scary. This is true on every day, of course, but it rarely impinges on my day-to-day reality. Kids, dogs, husband, work, writing… and then there are the science journals. The headline of this article caught my attention immediately, and I think I probably gasped audibly. Labmade Smallpox is Possible, Study Shows…
It’s not that I didn’t know it was coming, of course. I read John Ringo, after all, and not just his fiction. The man is a modern-day Cassandra. No, not Cassandra. No one listened to her, and I believe more people than just I listen to him. This is what he wrote a number of years ago, and I have referenced it time and time again here on the blog and elsewhere.
Junior’s Home RNA kit is not a device or a kit. Junior’s Home RNA Kit (Hereafter JHRK or Jerk) is when some little snowflake with WAAAAY too much intelligence, boredom and lack of parental involvement, can build their very own custom virus in their bedroom or mom’s basement. They can and do currently do so with computer viruses at present. When the technology and knowledge becomes possible to do so with BIOLOGICAL viruses we have an issue.
The general trend will go like this. Professor Doktor Herr Apocalyptica will invent a virus that can do something to humans. (Well, in fact, it does it to rats. But humans just happen to have the same brain chemistry.) Not just kill them, do something to them. It may, for example, combining the fields of neurology, psychology and virology, cure depression. No more need for Aderol or NoDepressol or whatever. Your neurology is now reset to perfect normal. There will be others that can do other things. Make you smarter, more socially able, less nervous, shy, crowd phobic, what have you. Make you need almost no sleep. (I’d love that one.)
Then some grad student trying to get their masters or doctorate will create a new virus (as many will be created because when you have a breakthrough like that it creates all sorts of easy, for values of easy, graduate projects) that, just for a laugh, makes any girl who is infected fall in love (or at least lust although love is possible as well.) with him. If you DON’T think a biology geek won’t write that one, you don’t understand male bio geeks.
There is, in other words, a very good chance that at least the basic zombie virus will be created by some professor who thinks its a good way to get grant money. (2)
It’s not the zombie virus – smallpox wouldn’t unleash hordes of ravenous anything but an invisible-to-the-naked eye virus – but a lab-built smallpox would kill many, many people. Probably on the order of millions, and I’m being very conservative, here. Survivors would be older people who were vaccinated, and it’s entirely possible that not even that would save them. A synthetic virus might not be close enough to the real thing to trigger antibodies. Vaccines do ‘wear off’ in some cases. Which is why we have booster shots, but no-one needs a booster for smallpox, so they don’t make it, and they don’t give it (with some rare exceptions).
In 2016, David Evans, a virologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, led a team that quietly synthesized horsepox, a virus believed to have gone extinct decades ago, from DNA fragments ordered online and delivered in the mail. There’s little evidence horsepox is dangerous to humans, but the same strategy could be used to recreate variola, the virus that causes smallpox, a disease declared eradicated in 1980 to which most of the world’s population has no immunity. “No question. If it’s possible with horsepox, it’s possible with smallpox,” says virologist Gerd Sutter of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany. (1)
We aren’t at the point – yet – where you can pop a design in a computer, and have a virus spit out the other end. It is increasingly evident that it’s coming, though. If you read through the article, you’ll see that two science journals have already declined to publish the study on how they created the virus. The fact that it was done, however, means that others will try it. The fact that it’s forbidden in first-world countries to experiment with smallpox and similar pathogens isn’t going to stop a determined researcher. Or supervillain. Or.. I’m kidding about the supervillain. I think. I’d hope he’d have the brains to see that the consequence of unleashing an unstoppable plague on the world would greatly diminish, not enhance, the rewards of ruling that world (or a significant chunk of it).
Ringo has talked about how he’s having trouble writing science fiction that is still fictional by the time he publishes it. I have an unfinished novel about a plague, and it may well stay unfinished, because extrapolation from what we can do now – Crispr/CAS9, mail-order viruses, nanotech – starts to look like the stuff of comic books and supervillains, and that’s not really my genre. I did incorporate some of it into Jade Star, and will likely play more with the concept, but that falls more into the ‘what makes us human?’ realm of storytelling. If we can manipulate the very fabric of our beings, are we still human?
If we can unleash plagues at will, who will survive of us?
The other edge of the sword is that we may be able to target specific cells with viruses. So… get a shot, and your cancer cells all get infected and die. Only that’s really complicated, because cancer cells are your cells. Which is why fighting cancer is so damn hard, and why there are so many treatments for it – cancer is not a monolithic disease. Add to that each human is slightly genetically different from every other human, and you have a big huge mess that facebook memes about Big Pharma withholding the cure for cancer don’t help in the slightest. It’s moronic, but it’s human. We want to believe there are answers, solutions to every problem that comes at us. The greatest part about the human race is that sometimes – most of the time, even – we find those answers.
The deepest depth of human nature is that sometimes we create our own problems. Like making a pox virus just to see if we could.
1. Labmade smallpox is possible, study shows
Science : 115-116
Reconstitution of horsepox virus from mail-order DNA reignites synthetic biology debate
2. The Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse
by John Ringo
johnringo.net Jan 2013