October 17, 2005

RAY KURZWEIL AND BILL JOY AGREE that publishing the 1918 Spanish Flu genome was a very bad idea:

To shed light on how the virus evolved, the United States Department of Health and Human Services published the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet in the GenBank database.

This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.

On the upside, those who complain that this Administration is too concerned with secrecy in the name of Homeland Security are proven wrong! Here’s their big point, though, with which I am in complete agreement:

We also need a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made. There are promising new technologies, like RNA interference, that could be harnessed. We need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale.

We realize that calling for this genome to be “un-published” is a bit like trying to gather the horses back into the barn. Perhaps we will be lucky this time, and we will indeed succeed in developing defenses for these killer flu viruses before they are needed. We should, however, treat the genetic sequences of pathological biological viruses with no less care than designs for nuclear weapons.

This is one of those areas where you only have to screw up once to have terrible consequences.

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