We’ve discussed before the dilemma of smallpox: should we keep for research purposes viable stocks of a deadly pathogen that is extinct in the wild. In the not-too-distant past, we also looked at the separate, related issue of creating (or re-creating) lethal strains with epidemic potential via genetic engineering. The second instance was illuminated by a security breach at the Centers for Disease Control, where over 80 people were at risk of infection with anthrax. The hits have kept on coming. In the most recent cases, “misplaced” smallpox vials at the NIH were found by chance in a storage closet and the CDC admitted to mistakenly mailing deadly H5N1 flu samples to a US Department of Agriculture lab that had requested the relatively innocuous H9N2 strain. Clearly a man with his finger on the public’s pulse, CDC Director Thomas Frieden stated: “These events should never have happened. (People) may be wondering whether we’re doing what we need to do to keep them safe and to keep our workers safe”.
There is no alternative to studying dangerous bugs- as recurrent scares highlight, with current transportation methods and population densities, hopeful ignorance is not an option (though we should question the wisdom of creating new pathogens in the lab). That doesn’t mean it is not time for some serious inquiry into how such research is conducted. There can never be a failsafe security system. But we should be able to do better than what we’ve seen over the last few weeks. Pulitzer prize winning author Laurie Garrett shares her thoughts on the issue in Foreign Policy magazine:
“Now that the security of all of these facilities has been proven — to put it politely — “flawed,” it seems wise to rethink the larger notion of “biosafety” in our time of gain-of-function research, synthetic biology, and directed evolution.”
The scientific community is well-aware of the potential dangers, and both the limits and best practices in pathogen research are the subject of much soul-searching and debate among researchers, and a group of concerned scientists has put out a statement asking that for “any experiment, the expected net benefits should outweigh the risks. Experiments involving the creation of potential pandemic pathogens should be curtailed until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits, and opportunities for risk mitigation, as well as comparison against safer experimental approaches.”