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The overconfidence of experts [ClearOnMoney]
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Commentary

The overconfidence of experts

7 Jan 2012 by Jim Fickett.

A recently created variant of H5N1 influenza is probably both highly contagious and highly deadly. Scientists are resisting the idea of having to carry out their work on this virus in laboratories with the highest level of security. However there is a record of viruses escaping from high-security facilities and, given that a significant fraction of the human species is at risk, the highest level of security would be appropriate.

Perhaps you've seen some of the articles about the new synthetic influenza. The short background goes like this: H5N1 influenza, so-called “bird flu”, is quite deadly (a large fraction of those infected die), but (fortunately) not very contagious. Scientists, in order to be better prepared in case a new, more contagious strain emerges, have created such a strain in the lab. The synthetic virus is highly contagious between ferrets, and past experience suggests that that means it probably would be for humans as well. In addition, although the scientists who created the virus thought that making it more contagious would make it less deadly, this turned out not to be the case, at least in animals.

There are a lot of what-if arguments swirling around on this topic. It is important to first get the facts straight. No one knows just what would happen if this virus were to get out of the lab, but there is a significant possibility that it would quickly spread around the world and kill a large fraction of the people it infected. So the risk we are talking about is the death of a significant fraction of the human species. To put things in perspective, an escaped virus might well do far more damage than murders, automobile accidents, terrorism, hurricanes, and earthquakes combined.

The argument that has been covered in most of the newspaper stories is about academic freedom versus security. Should the scientific work be published in detail? If the details were to be published, this might allow (for example) some wacko dictator (North Korea comes to mind) to manufacture the virus and hold the world to ransom. I would probably favor some level of secrecy myself, but there are arguments worth hearing on both sides and, in any case, a large number of people already know all the details (the work has been presented at meetings), and it may be too late to keep any secrets.

A separate argument, which has seen less public discussion, is about the security of the laboratory facilities that handle the virus. Work so far has been done is labs certified for “Biosafety level 3”, defined as being appropriate for “Agents causing serious human disease with possible treatment: high individual risk, low community risk.” Those involved in the work say level 3 has many safeguards, and there is little danger of a virus escaping. Some however, think any further work should be carried out under “Biosafety level 4”, defined as being appropriate for “Agents likely to cause serious human disease with no treatment: high individual risk, high community risk.” I am not an expert in such matters, but just going by the definitions, it seems that level 4 is a better fit. No one knows whether a pandemic could be contained if this virus were to escape.

The experts in this particular virus are confident in their own processes, and say worries are overblown. However the journal Nature, in an article entitled Fears grow over lab-bred flu, points out that, in fact, there is a history of leaks from supposedly secure labs:

Past experience suggests that the risk of the new variant H5N1 escaping from a lab is far from negligible. Over the past decade, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has accidentally infected staff at four high-containment labs in mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore, variously rated as BSL-3 and BSL-4. A US National Research Council report released in September detailed 395 biosafety breaches during work with select agents in the United States between 2003 and 2009 — including seven laboratory-acquired infections — that risked accidental release of dangerous pathogens from high-containment labs.

And the rapid spread of an escaped flu virus would make it more dangerous than other deadly pathogens. “When SARS or BSL-4 agents get out, their potential for transmission on a global basis is quite limited,” says Michael Osterholm, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, and is a member of the NSABB. “Influenza presents a very difficult challenge because if it ever were to escape, it is one that would quickly go round the world.”

Astonishingly, there is no oversight body, and scientists decided the security level of their own work. So far, then, the experts have gotten away with saying, “Don't worry, I've got it under control.”

[Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biodefence expert at Rutgers University] laments that important questions of biosafety and biosecurity are largely left to the discretion of individual researchers. “In the United States, there is only voluntary oversight for biosafety, and with the exception of the select agents rule, there is no oversight of bio­security,” he says. Given the choice, says [Deborah Middleton, an H5N1 researcher at the high-containment facilities at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory], flu researchers often resist working in higher biocontainment levels simply because they would no longer have the convenience of doing their research in BSL-3 labs at their own institutes, and because working in a BSL-4 lab is inherently more difficult.

Yikes.