Sunday, July 20, 2014

So -- That Smallpox Story? Not So Uncommon, It Would Seem: NYT

Last Friday night, we talked about extremely dangerous smallpox vials -- forgotten for a half-century, and apparently left entirely unsecured -- in a cardboard shoe-box.

If we are to believe The New York Times -- and there is really no reason not to -- the occurence is not as isolated as we might hope. In fact (stoking some of our worst fears), it turns out that some scientists around the globe are actively researching ways to make such deadly viruses. . . even more communicable. And these are not crazed military "weaponizing" researchers -- in labs in North Korea, or Putin's Russia. No, these are ostensibly respectable researchers whose mission it is to figure out how, and why, a given viral strain might mutate into a global killer and be easily transmitted in open air. Or on open waterways. Truly creepy stuff. Do go read it all but here is a bit:

. . . .The recent mistakes at federal labs have opened the door to a much broader criticism of the risks posed by the expanding research into risky pathogens, especially the efforts to create dangerous strains of flu not currently circulating, or to manipulate already deadly flu viruses to make them more contagious.

Researchers who conduct that work, sometimes labeled “gain of function” research, say its purpose is, in part, to help scientists recognize changes in natural viruses that may help predict which ones are becoming more deadly or more contagious. But it provoked a public outcry in 2011 because of fears that a lab accident might release the altered viruses and start a lethal pandemic.

The studies were halted for about a year while governments and research organizations tried to develop safety rules, but the work has since resumed in several laboratories. . . .

What do you think? Is "gain of function" -- even in truly lethal viral loads -- something we ought to be studying? Is the risk of a mishap worth the benefit of some future possible insight -- that might help us eradicate such an outbreak? I am willing to be convinced, but I lean toward shutting this research down. We do know that weaponizing research is very likely underway in some nefarious labs in North Korea.

Will this competing research provide the defense, should such a weapon be used in the wild? I am puzzled, and more than a little concerned by the whole idea of it. You?


Anonymous said...

Such deep questions. You could run a whole upper level college credit course on the subject 'ethics of scientific research on pathogenic agents.'

My opinion~yes, we should do the research. Much like the reverse engineering work that was done on bird flu.

Gaining information about how these agents mutate should allow better insight to vaccines or drug development.

I am not naive enough to think that there aren't potential problems but~~aren't there with inherent problems with nuclear technology and gun powder?

Even closer to home: should we ban the internet because someone looks up how to make ricin?

"...Richardson made online purchases of castor beans and lye, another component of ricin."

Condor said...

I do hear you...

And, what's to stop some nefarious superpower from stealing the "weapon ized" smallpox or H1N1 or Ebola from any lab... These are not full hardened like a NSA facility, right?

Condor said...

Just for the sake of argument, of course... I have no firm conviction on it, just yet...


Anonymous said...

So, some of them are pretty secure. For the highly pathogenic agents already 'in hand' think Plum Island Animal Disease Research Facility or Ft. Hood.

Even the main campus of NIH is not that 'easily accessed' anymore, gated community/armed guards et al.

On the other hand, you can buy an attenuated small pox virus from ATCC (, if you want.

Then play in the lab and mutate it~~~but, again, it really isn't that easy. You have to have some pretty sophisticated lab equipment for your own safety as well as experience in virology.

I think most of the time, it is either someone 'internal' that has a specific grudge or~~sadly, simple human forgetfulness that seems to drive mistakes.

We are after all, human. We do make mistakes.

Condor said...

I guess I'd just observe that making mistakes with gunpowder -- results in a few casualties... And nukes require enriched uranium (high barrier, from a physics/chemistry standpoint).

I do agree, in order to combat a viral threat -- accidental or malicious -- we likely need the research to continue.

It just scares me -- if stolen, there a very few natural barriers to a global pandemic. That's my final happy thought of the morning!

Namaste and do stop back by!