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Scientists call for restrictions on viral research [ClearOnMoney]
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Scientists call for restrictions on viral research

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Commentary

Scientists call for restrictions on viral research

9 Aug 2012 by Jim Fickett.

A few months ago there was quite a flap about research on the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Scientists created a version of the virus that might be far more deadly than the naturally occurring one; it might, in fact, be capable of killing a significant fraction of all humanity. The main issue publicly discussed was whether the research should be published. Despite the ruckus, this was probably a non-issue, because the research had already been disseminated at meetings.

The real question that responsible world citizens need to think about, which I discussed in a post in January (The overconfidence of experts) is the risk of the virus escaping from the laboratory, and what should be done to counter that risk.

I was gratified today to see that some prominent biologists have now gone beyond recommending that the research be done only in the most secure facilities, and suggest that this sort of research may be too dangerous to be done at all:

Few pathogens known to man are as dangerous as the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Of the 600 reported cases of people infected, almost 60 per cent have died. …

The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was caused by a virus that killed less than 2 per cent of its victims, yet went on to kill 50m worldwide. A highly pathogenic H5N1 virus that was as easily transmitted between humans could kill hundreds of millions more. …

… it is a fallacy to consider every and any experiment fair game. Creating an agent more deadly than exists in nature falls into this category. …

If this controversial work is allowed to continue and more labs are going to be involved, the risk of an accidental release of a mutated H5N1 virus increases exponentially.

Accidents do happen. We need look no further than the re-emergence of the H1N1 virus in 1977, after a 20-year hiatus. A group of US scientists investigating the 1977 outbreak concluded that it leaked out of a Russian lab that was working on a live-attenuated H1N1 virus vaccine. …

Between 1978 and 1999 there were more than 1,200 incidents in which people were infected from BSL-4 labs [these are the most expensive and most secure labs]. Since 1999, lab workers have been killed by numerous microbes, including Ebola and the Sars respiratory virus.

Scientists have a moral responsibility to speak up and question the fundamental wisdom, the ethics and the social advisability of conducting such research. …

there needs to be a wider, truly international discussion with experts from all fields of the life sciences, as well as public involvement, on the scientific, social and ethical advisability of pursuing biomedical research that aims to create potentially deadly agents – and on the consequences of succeeding. …

[About the authors:]

Peter Hale is the founder of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, Washington, DC. Simon Wain-Hobson is a professor in the Department of Molecular Retrovirology, Institut Pasteur, Paris. Robert May is a professor in the, Department of Zoology, Oxford university