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2011-09-29

A New (Virtual) Immune System?

I've written and rewritten this post several times. I worried that I was not a medical expert or did not know enough about computer viruses. Well, dear reader, heck with it. Here are some ideas to chew on. If you see any issues, let me know. 

Our bodies work every day to respond to threats to our health. Our immune systems work all the time to respond to threats from pathogens that surround us. These can be quite ordinary bacteria and viruses that enter our bodies because we inhale, drink, or eat them. They also come in through the skin, our eyes, and through cuts. The immune system is a marvel of evolution with both localized response and systemic response--all without us thinking about it.

One worry we have is when we encounter a pathogen that we as a species have never seen before. Some zoonotic agents, diseases that move from non-humans to us, can attack us and our immune systems may have no antibodies to use in our defense. More worrisome are agents that suppress our immune systems ability to respond, leaving us less defended by ordinary threats. When I stop to think about these concerns, both natural and human-engineered, I literally lose sleep.

Zoonotic agents are on the rise as we move economic activity into formerly remote areas for mineral extraction or lumber harvesting. The opening of the higher areas of the Amazon Basin or the Congo to economic activity open the pathways for pathogens to move from these areas to the rest of the world. The US Agency for International Development has tracked the rate of these zoonoses for several years and has determined that they will continue to appear with greater frequency as we advance the global economy.

In the information technology realm, there is a similar situation where humans create viruses and other types of threats. The IT folks have created immune systems that involve firewalls, gateway detectors, anti-virus software, and lots of education to convince people that the threats are real. Properly managed, these form a defense in depth that allow our computers to keep running without being adversely affected--meaning grinding to a halt as an errant bot takes over the computer's functions or violates our privacy by revealing information to others.

Given these threats and many others that I have not mentioned (don't want to affect your sleep), what we really need is a societal immune system--a way to detect, characterize, and prompt a response to threats to human health that act to inform us of local outbreaks as well as the big pandemic ones. The tricky part is to get enough data early enough and apply robust analytics to see threats locally. Like our bodies immune systems, we need to see and act locally before the problem becomes systemic.

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