Thursday, May 14, 2009

When pigs fly: Swine flu a laboratory escapee?

The H1N1 swine flu story is about to enter the crazy phase, in which conspiracy theorists begin joyously messing with the narrative.

The latest wrinkle is the suggestion by an Australian researcher that it could have been launched from a laboratory.

Even this researcher himself admits it's a far-fetched idea, and likely to be wrong—but conspiracists won't be worrying about that.

AIDS has gone through the same pattern, in which dark theories abound about secret laboratories, devious motives, government plots, and insane objectives tied to racial cleansing or sexual preference.

Meanwhile, H1N1 is behaving as a normal virus does. While it's certainly possible it formed in a laboratory—and that's far more likely than its delivery in glowing green test tubes by aliens in airborne saucers—it seems more reasonable to believe that it evolved in animals. Flu viruses evolve all the time. Nothing unique about that.

As of this morning, the Centers for Disease control report the new H1N1 virus has been confirmed in 47 states—including 10 cases in Hawai'i—with 4,298 total cases and three deaths nationwide. The only H1N1-free states so far are Alaska, Wyoming, Mississippi and West Virginia.

People are also still getting other flu viruses. Only about half of the flu cases being reported in the U.S. are this H1N1 strain.

The World Health Organization is reporting it's in 33 countries with 6,497 confirmed cases. Those (ass in the U.S.) are just those whose infection with H1N1 has been confirmed by a lab test. There are thousands or tens of thousands more actual cases for which tests were not done, or not deemed necessary.

If you get a mild case—and in many people this strain has comparatively mild symptoms—you might never go to a doctor, but you still might pass the disease on. The World Health Organization reports that this strain, while often mild, is more contagious than normal seasonal flu.

That means it has the potential to spread more easily to people with underlying medical problems—for whom it can be severe and potentially deadly. That's how this flu could be paradoxically both mild in symptom and high in fatalities.

A retired Australian researcher, Adrian Gibbs, 75, has gained publicity in recent hours and days with the suggestion that the new H1N1 could have escaped from virus laboratory. Gibbs is a virus researcher with good credentials.

Lots of folks will latch onto that. Indeed, hundreds of media outlets have breathlessly reported Gibbs' suggestion.

But Gibbs himself is reported as saying he just mentioned it as a possibility because it is, of course, possible, but that nobody else had already mentioned it.

Possible, but lacking evidence.

"One of the simplest explanations is that it's a laboratory escape, but there are lots of others," he said on ABC news.

And he makes no bones about the possibility that his wild-ass theory could be bonkers.

“This is how science progresses. Somebody comes up with a wild idea, and then they all pounce on it and kick you to death, and then you start off on another silly idea,” Bloomberg News reported him saying.

Active researchers are aggressively poo-poo-ing Gibbs' idea, some of them predictably going too far in the other direction, arguing that it's a crazy idea and absolutely impossible.

This theory is neither probable nor impossible, but on the spectrum of likelihood, it certainly seems nearer the latter.

The first question that comes to mind is how an escaped virus from a presumably sophisticated viral research laboratory gets to a remote rural part of Mexico, where the disease was first confirmed, and where there are lots of pigs.

If you want a simple theory, how about this: if you hear an oink and a grunt in the night, is your first suspicion that there's a viral researcher with a test tube in the bushes?

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

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