Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Further Feuding on Flu

My stand on prohibiting flu-virus research hasn’t changed: as I told the NY Times last year, even if flu experimentation is overseen by a group of so-called experts, it’s just not clear who should keep an eye on the experts.

And the question about minding the experts just got more complicated.

The issue has been whether researchers should be allowed to conduct experiments with modified strains of H5N1 (avian) influenza virus, in order to find out more about the potential for bird flu to spread among humans.  Concerned about possible dangers of experimenting with extra-transmissible bird ful, a moratorium on such research was declared.  The moratorium ended in late January of this year.

But now some distinguished scientists are calling for fuller constraints on this kind of research — called gain-of-function (GOF) experimentation, because it involves creating novel strains of viruses with capabilities not known to occur in nature.  The ostensible purpose of such research is to figure out how to prevent harm associated with inevitable genetic changes in viruses.  Think of it as creating disaster scenarios at the molecular level, so as to determine how to avert damage if the disaster comes to pass.

CIDRAP gives a nice summary of the new controversy, reporting that the Foundation for Vaccine Research, an advocacy group, has written to Dr. Amy Guttman, chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, raising what the Foundation says are “moral and ethical” concerns about GOF research.

An editorial by Simon Wain-Hobson in Nature the other day advances reasons why scientists should get together to limit GOF research.  Wain-Hobson questions the scientific validity of the predictions such research makes (since natural selection in the real world might produce changes in viruses quite unlike those manufactured in the lab), and criticizes WHO for failing to generate a broad discussion on the dangers of GOF research.

Then, he asks what will happen if the viruses created in GOF research leak out of a lab.  Who will take responsibility, who should make decisions, who should own the information arising from the research?  He says,

The global ramifications of GOF research have simply not been sufficiently explored and discussed. Influenza virologists are going down a blind alley and the powers that be are blindly letting them go down that alley, which is tantamount to acquiescing. So let’s be clear: the end game could be viruses more dangerous than the Spanish flu strain.

And Wain-Hobson goes on to propose a suspension of all GOF research until

virologists open up and engage in public discussion of their work and the issues it raises. Given that the flu community failed utterly to use the year-long hiatus to good effect, it is clear that an independent risk–benefit assessment of GOF work is needed.

Here is where it gets complicated.  One group of scientists (Wain-Hobson and the FVR) is angry with another group (the so-called flu community, basically those influenza researchers who conducted the 2011 H5N1 experiments and their defenders).

At the same time, both groups are unwilling to have government regulate research. In fact, Wain-Hobson worries because

Officials in Washington DC are putting the finishing touches to new guidelines for the review, regulation and oversight of this kind of research. The chill winds that we can anticipate blowing from policy-makers as a result could affect all of us who research viruses and their pathology.

The terms of the debate aren’t scientific, that is.  And they surely aren’t about morals, no matter what some self-important researchers claim.   The debate is about who will be able to control scientific research and who will benefit from the consequences (including, presumably, vaccines or other marketable preventive agents).  

Don’t be misled by assertions that the debate over GOF research is about public health, or ethics.  It’s about the usual:  political power and profit making.