Public Health


Some recent laboratory blunders involving anthrax and smallpox - plus the Ebola outbreak - have reignited a controversy over certain kinds of research on dangerous microbes.


The question - and what a question it is - is whether scientists should ever create new kinds of germs that have the potential to cause a pandemic if they got out of the lab. The debate has been smoldering for some time.

GREENE: But now each side is marshaling its forces in a way that's unusual for the scientific community. And it's not just some ivory tower dispute here. There are high stakes for the public. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: This whole fight started a couple of years ago. Two labs had made new potentially more contagious forms of a bird flu virus that can be deadly in humans. The researchers did it to find out what this virus was capable of, to prepare for the threat that it might mutate in the wild and start a human pandemic. Critics question whether the knowledge gained was worth the risk of deliberately making a super flu. They want more public debate on this kind of research. David Relman is a microbiologist at Stanford University.

DAVID RELMAN: I don't think we have adequately involved the public so that they understand the possible consequences of mistakes, or errors or misadventures in performing this kind of science - the kinds of consequences that would result in many, many people becoming ill or dying.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The controversial bird flu research got halted for more than a year while scientists argued - at meetings, in op-eds and in the media. Eventually, federal officials promised more oversight. The experiments started back up and everything quieted down. Relman says key questions never got answered.

RELMAN: One of the big issues that has not been advanced over the last two years is a discussion about whether there are experiments that ought not to be undertaken, and if so, what they look like.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says scientists keep publishing more studies that involve genetically altered viruses.

RELMAN: You know, every time that one of these experiments comes up, it just ups the ante a bit. It creates additional levels of risk that force the question - do we accept all of this?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Last month in Massachusetts he met with others who were worried. The combined opinion of the so-called Cambridge Working Group is that researchers should curtail any experiments that would lead to new pathogens with pandemic potential. They want a better assessment of the dangers and benefits. By coincidence, they released their official statement just as the public started hearing news reports of various laboratory errors - a forgotten vial of smallpox found in an old freezer, mishaps involving anthrax and bird flu at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What's more - the unprecedented Ebola outbreak was reminding the public what it looks like when a deadly virus gets out of control. All of this led another band of scientists to form a different group to defend research on dangerous pathogens.

PAUL DUPREX: There are multiple events that have come together in a rather unusual convergence (laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Paul Duprex is a microbiologist at Boston University. He says the recent reports of lab mistakes are exceptions. They don't mean you should shut down work that's essential to protect the public health.

DUPREX: These viruses are right there. They cause disease. They've killed many, many people in the past. We bring them to the laboratory to work with them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His group calls itself Scientists for Science. He says if questions are being asked about the risks...

DUPREX: Scientists and neurologists have one of two options - we just keep our heads down and basically think oh, it doesn't matter, let's just do the experiments, it'll all go away or we have an obligation to engage proactively to provide an informed opinion because ultimately we are the people working with these things.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His group's position statement emphasizes that studies on risky germs are already subject to extensive regulations. It says focusing on lab safety is the best defense, not limiting the types of experiments that can be done. Each of these two groups has now set up a website and posted its manifesto. Each website features a list of more than 100 supporters, including the names of Nobel Prize winners and other scientific superstars. This kind of lining up on two sides as if readying for battle doesn't happen that often in science.

ARTURO CASADEVALL: You know, it's not common. I think you're looking at something that is unusual.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Arturo Casadevall is a microbiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He says look, scientists have passionate debates all the time. But it's usually about the meaning of some experimental result.

CASADEVALL: And the nice thing about science is that whenever there's a controversy, you can almost always solve it with additional work - that is, you can lay out the conditions for making another experiment and that hopefully will convince people. What is different here is that we are facing a set of intangibles. And because they involve judgment calls at this point, people are often weighing the risks and the benefits very differently.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Those differences come from deep convictions, what people fear and value the most. That may be part of what makes this dispute so hard to resolve. Casadevall just wrote an editorial urging his colleagues to quote "lower the level of rhetoric and focus on the scientific questions at hand." It seems like one side is basically calling the other reckless mad scientists who are creating the biological equivalent of nuclear weapons. And then on the opposite side, you have them calling each other sort of, like, anti-science Luddites who don't want to see any progress and are going to shut down vital research that could save the world. Does that seem like a pretty fair assessment of how the rhetoric has been?

CASADEVALL: I think that that has been an extreme rhetoric said by very few. And it is precisely that kind of rhetoric that we want to put an end to because it simply doesn't help the debate. It doesn't help the way forward.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some say the only way forward now is for an independent scientific organization to take the lead. Tim Dunahue is president of the American Society for Microbiology. It's calling on the prestigious National Academy of Sciences to convene a forum that can bring everyone together. Dunahue says something similar happened back in the mid-1970s when brand-new technologies for manipulating DNA forced scientists and the public to tackle thorny questions.

TIM DUNAHUE: And I think that is a productive exercise to have scientists and the public sitting around the table making sure each one understands what the benefits and risks are and putting in place policies that allow these types of experiments to go on so that they're safe and so society can benefit from the knowledge and innovation that comes out of that work.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A spokesperson at the National Academy of Sciences says it does plan to hold a symposium later this year. The details are still being worked out. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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