March 15, 2012
In his manipulation of the H5N1 virus, a Dutch scientist has created a monster
Lately, virologist Ron Fouchier has spent a lot of time trying to convince people he is not a mad scientist.
For Fouchier, the label has been a pretty tough one to shake. After he announced in September that he’d created a new, highly infectious version of the bird flu, many began to compare him to Victor Frankenstein. He is spoken about as if he is a crazed man in a lab coat with Einstein hair and a maniacal laugh, doing experiments with the help of a small, cross-eyed hunchback. In reality, descriptions of Fouchier by Time and ABC News, among others, portray him to be a fairly normal individual. However, just as with Victor Frankenstein, it’s not Fouchier, himself, that’s so scary, it’s his creation.
According to The New Yorker, H5N1 (a.k.a. bird flu) is “one of the deadliest microbes known to science.” It is more than 30 times more deadly to the people it infects than the Spanish flu, which killed more than 50 million people in 1918. What prevented the bird flu outbreak in 2003 from becoming another influenza epidemic is the fact that the virus was not very contagious. Unlike the common flu or the Spanish flu, which can be transmitted by sneezing and coughing, people could only transmit the bird flu to other humans via very close contact.
Fouchier has changed that. He has transformed H5N1 into an airborne contagion. The deadliest microbe known to science is now also one of the most contagious.
When Victor Frankenstein animates his creature in Mary Shelley’s iconic novel, he is so terrified he runs from the room and proceeds to do the least logical thing possible under the circumstances: take a nap. When he wakes, he is surprised to find the monster has escaped from his laboratory. When AP English students read Frankenstein earlier this month, they were incredulous that Victor could have been so naïve as to think his eight-foot-tall creature wouldn’t escape.
Although Fouchier’s strain of H5N1 is kept locked in a high security lab, believing it won’t ever get out is about as ridiculous as believing a recently animated giant isn’t going to leave your laboratory while you are sleeping. Diseases manufactured in laboratories have a history of getting out. At least Frankenstein’s monster was visible.
The same cannot be said of Fouchier’s microbe.