"Deadliest flu bug given new life in U.S. laboratory" The
Centers for Disease Control reported that a team of American research scientists
have re-created the virus responsible an estimated 50 million deaths world wide
in the terrible fall and summer of 1918-19. In a front-page story in the San
Francisco Chronicle, this was anounced as a scientific tour de force, the extraordinary
culmination of more than ten years of research.
This coincided with the reviews of the San Francisco Opera's world premiere
of "Doctor Atomic", John Adams' opera about J.Robert Oppenheimer and
the making of the atomic bomb, "The enormous silvery, gray bomb hanging
over a baby's cradle at the beginning of the second act" was the image
that began one review. The editorial inspired by the opera ended with "the
voice-over at the opera's end--a Japanese woman asking plaintively for water,
portent of impending death by radiation--a chilling reminder to us in this nuclear
age that the first country to develop the atom bomb remains the only one to
It is chilling to juxtapose news of the re-creating of the flu as a scientific
accomplishment with its potential for destruction, and these images from "Doctor
Atomic". it would be like a quest to find where Dracula was buried with
a silver stake through his heart and bringing him back to life.
Dr. Johan Hultin was given a huge amount of credit because he unearthed the
sample of the virus which made this accomplishment possible. Hultin is the San
Francisco physician who at age 73, journeyed to a remote burial ground in the
subartic permafrost in 1977 and took from a preserved body, two intact lungs
containing the 1918 Spanish flu virus. He had been haunted by his personal failure
to accomplish this when he was a medical student fifty years before.
The hero or the heroic team are particularly masculine archetypes exemplified
by expeditions to find the headwaters of the Nile, putting the first man on
the moon, or getting to the top of Mt. Everest. Men climb mountains, we are
told, because it is there. From a psychological view, the effort may be motivated
by a desire to overcome an earlier humiliation or failure as well as to be on
top. The focus on succeeding or winning creates its own logic and narrow focus.
Becoming tough, both in endurance and physical stamina as well as tough as in
"not tender-hearted" results.
When the focus is scientific, logic and intellect--the rational side of the
brain is called for. As a consequence of one-sided development, qualities to
do with the imagination, feelings and intuition are either disdained or not
developed. Creating the atomic bomb was a scientific accomplishment, as is re-creating
the deadly flu virus--but after Hiroshima and Nagaski, we need recognize the
potential consequences. The CDC now has a biological equivalent to the makings
of the first atomic bomb. On the positive side, it probably will lead to developing
a vaccine. This doesn't make it less a danger to the world or America less feared,
because those with access to the vaccine will be safe. That we can develop a
biological weapon from this virus that would be lethal only to the unvaccinated,
is not good news.
In the news report: "The science behind the re-creating of the 1918 flu
virus is a triumph for Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute
of Pathology in Rockville, MD, who began the seemingly quixotic quest to reconstruct
the virus ten years ago." Such research can only be done when well funded
and this Institute undoubtably would receive Department of Defense funding.
It is not quixiotic to develop potential biological weapons.
I shudder that this virus has been brought back to life, even though I can
appreciate that it is a scientific accomplishment. I wonder if any ethical questions
were raised when decisions were made to go ahead with this project. There is
an ethic of relationship that was overlooked by men experts on ethics until
Carol Gilligan at Harvard noted that both principle and relationship are elements
of ethical behavior. The systematizing mind, more common in men, can design
brilliant protocols to further the goal of re-creating the virus. The empathic,
intuitive mind which women are noted for, can envision re-creating another epidemic
and imagine how it would feel to be dying or to see loved ones die of this.
Within hierarchal systems, people often under tremendous psychological pressure
to go along. I wonder if there were men and women with ethical doubts about
this project who kept silent as this deadly virus was brought to life. If the
next step is creating stockpiles of the virus, the parallels with the Manhattan
Project need to be heeded.