18 December 2007

Year of the Plague

I Am Legend topped the box office in a US record-setting December opening box office. Killer plagues make headlines, and attract readers and movie-goers.

A recent set of cautionary nano-revo scenarios from Nanowerk prominently featured biological plagues as significant existential risks. We know it could happen, because it has happened so many times before across the planet's times and places.

One of the reasons that killer plague is likely to hit the modern world, is how easy and powerful the tools of biological creation are becoming. A killer virus must be virulent and readily transmissible.
But the most disturbing news this week is that scientists have created the human killer virus in the lab. The dreaded H5N1 avian flu, as feared, finally mutated last August into a virulent form that can easily spread from person to person, increasing the likelihood of a pandemic that could kill hundreds of millions — much like 1918s infamous Spanish flu.

Luckily, this mutation was the creation of scientists at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, and the mutated strain lives — for now — only
in petri dishes. Source

A mass epidemic of killer virus (or bacteria) would initially be seen as a medical problem. As significant numbers of "weight-bearing members" of society fall to the virus, the epidemic becomes a massive social problem. As the medical infrastructure itself falls to the killer microbe, efforts to control its spread become medieval and draconian.

The killer plague scenario is but one of many existential risk scenarios that the Lifeboat Foundation, JG Matheny, Nick Bostrom, Michael Anissimov, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and many other futurist thinkers contemplate.

The risk of a naturally emerging super-killer microbe may be minimal. But given that human researchers have already modified the H5N1 avian flue in the lab to spread from person to person, we are not necessarily dealing with naturally emerging viruses. We will soon be dealing with intentionally created mass killers.

With the loss of the medical infrastructure and most civil security apparatus, the western world would begin to resemble Baghdad or Beirut at their worst. All the predictions of what would happen should George W. Bush be elected would suddenly and finally come true.

Uninfected refugees would flee the "hot zone", inadvertently carrying the killer microbe in their midst. The "wealth" of generations would be abandoned in a millisecond in the mad rush to escape the spreading death.

What I am suggesting is that with the tools of synthetic biology, modern medical tools--antibiotics, antivirals, the entire pharmaceutical R&D infrastructure--would be either ineffective or too slow to help anyone.

The type of proactive prevention that could hold back such threats have little to do with your government or the technological infrastructure of your society.

More later.

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