Monday, December 31, 2012

Are you prepared for...ferret flu?

Ferrets.  They're cute.  They're cuddly.  They're potential spreaders of a killer disease.

In their year in review, Discover cheerfully points out two virologists have already mutated a strand of the avian flu ("bird flu") so that it might spread among ferrets.  Specifically, the alteration of the H1N1 virus was so that it might attach itself to the upper airways of mammals, albeit in this case only ferrets.

Condemnations were quick.  As stated in the article, The New York Times called it a "doomsday weapon" that could kill millions if it were released.  A few scientists even alleged that the techniques of this research might even become a "how-to" textbook for terrorists on how to bioengineer pandemics through the use of weaponized viruses.

So why in the world would anyone conduct these non-salubrious and potentially deadly experiments in the first place?  For the researchers involved, it was to study how epidemics form and to answer questions, specifically:

"What makes a virus pathogenic or drug resistant? What makes a virus go airborne?"

While bio-terrorism is a justifiable concern, I don't think we could ever hold a candle to good ol' Mother Nature.  Outbreaks such as SARS, H1N1, and even HIV have taken their toll and who knows what form of "supervirus" might be released in the future?

Along those lines, the concept of the "Gaia Hypothesis" has long intrigued me as I have said in previous posts.  Oversimplified, the idea of Gaia is that the entire Earth is essentially one living organism with each and every ecosystem acting as a subset of the greater whole.  All living organisms would then be analogous to separate cells in a larger body, that body being a single living Earth.  By our way of life, humans tend to behave more like cancer cells within Gaia.  So what does the biology of a living thing do once it becomes infected or sick?

It fights back.  It removes the invader.  When word of a new virus or pandemic hits the news, I cannot help but wonder if it is really another retaliatory salvo from Gaia as it fights to remove that which lives out of balance within it.

Like I said, just an idea.

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