Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flue Conspiracy Theories and Their Consequences

And so the conspiracy theories about the swine flu begin. One example is this YouTube video that claims at a minimum that the company Novavax, which claims it could produce a swine flu vaccine in as little as 12 weeks, is hyping the dangers of the swine flu just to boost its stock. The stock (NVAX) has risen by over 300% in the past week.

But the YouTube video goes on to make the charge that people associated with the company deliberately created the swine flu through genetic engineer and released it for personal profit. In cases like this I prefer to stick with the old maxim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. It has served me well in the past. Such evidence is certainly not available at this time. Nevertheless, this conspiracy theory will no doubt spread wider than the actual flu before this is over.

It does raise an interesting question though. With so many companies involved in genetic engineering, it is certainly possible that the first mass epidemic from a genetically engineered disease won't come from a terrorist group pursuing some political cause, it may instead come from a company pursuing financial gain. Is this really such an extraordinary claim? Given the carnage caused to the world economy by a small group of executives pursuing large personal financial gains, I find it hard to dismiss such an idea by simply waving your hands and saying “nobody would act that irresponsibly”. If anything, it could be argued that the extraordinary claim is that this would never happen given the tremendous financial windfall that could occur to any company with the right vaccine or antibiotic to combat a major outbreak. Perhaps this episode will be the beginning of a wake-up call about the need to bring genetic engineering under some stricter controls, and to admit that it is just one of those things that is not appropriate for open pursuit in a lightly regulated free market.