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Forget Ebola. Man-made viruses are coming to kill us all

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:32 IST

Stephen Hawking is a genius. There's no two ways about that. When he isn't expounding on the enigmatic nature of black holes, he's terrifying us with the potential ways the world might end.

Luckily for us, Hawking's a scientist, so the end he's talking about isn't in any biblical sense. Even so, it's no less scary. While technology is often seen as the solution to the problems faced by man, Hawking believes that it is precisely this that will ultimately bring about our downfall. And one of his principal fears, and a great example of the dangers technology poses, are man-made viruses.

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Hollywood has bombarded us with movies, from the regular zombie outbreak fare to the pandemic-themed ones like Contagion. The dangers of genetically engineered viruses though aren't fictional and are truly, terrifyingly worrying.

To give you a sense of perspective, let's for a moment, consider Ebola. Ebola is objectively terrifying with victims haemorrhaging and, in most cases dying. However, as we saw with the 2014-15 outbreak, it's ability to spread is limited, stopping it from reaching pandemic levels. Genetically modified viruses however are capable of a whole lot more.

A man-made pandemic

In 2011, immediately after the H5NI virus (bird flu) briefly captured the world's attention, a Dutch research team decided to take things up a notch. Through the magic of science, they "mutated the hell out of" the virus to produce a far more infectious one.

Even though the genetic structure of the newly created virus only differed from the original by 5 mutations, it was capable of unprecedented levels of destruction. How so? By making it airborne.

It wasn't even that the virus wasn't already bad enough - it killed over half it's victims. By making it airborne, the newly created virus could, according to conservative scientific estimates, infect over half the world's population.

Mercifully, it was only done for research purposes. Still, it doesn't change the fact that in today's ever more sophisticated world, we're able to weaponise the already terrible viruses that exist.

Stephen Hawking is worried a genetically engineered super virus could end us all, and he isn't wrong

The publication of their findings were barred for fear of giving bioterrorists a new weapon. Research on the virus was subsequently halted. However,, that doesn't entirely safeguard us from the potential hazards of a super virus. While the Hollywood-esqe possibility of a bio-terror attack seems like the most likely threat, the bigger one is far more mundane - a simple accident in a science lab.

It's precisely this that has lead to the formulation of restrictions governing where and under what circumstances research like this is permitted. However, this minimises the risk, it doesn't eliminate it.

The way forward

The logical solution you'd imagine is to stop such research altogether. The problem though is that this approach may put us in even more danger. Scientists argue that this research is integral in understanding how naturally occurring viruses mutate and evolve. In fact, in creating such a super virus, researchers found out for the first time that the H5N1 virus was capable of mutating to be transmittable between mammals.

By creating such viruses before they're able to mutate similarly in the wild, we're able to preempt vaccines and other precautionary measures. It could help us prevent the possible development of these super-viruses altogether.

Ultimately, it's a catch 22, where we're possibly damned if we do and we're similarly under threat if we don't.

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First published: 31 January 2016, 3:07 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.