Saturday, January 22, 2005

Trust Us...We're Scientists!

POGO discusses the troubling situation at Boston University, where three researchers were infected with the prospective germ-warfare agent tularemia.

Jeanne Guillemin, the author of the new book, Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, told POGO that:
The problems were multiple but secrecy was the worst of them. The microbiologists didn't know they were working with a virulent strain, when the first two became sick, the association with the lab was not made, when the diagnosis was confirmed, both BU and city and state government decided to keep the information from the public. Their rationale apparently was that since tularemia is not contagious, the public was not at risk. But tularemia transmits easily by air: suppose there were other cases in May that went unreported. The mortality rate for untreated tularemia, by the way, is 30 percent, as bad as the worst rate for smallpox. BU was lucky this time but the only head to roll was that of Peter Rice, who led the research project, yet public trust depends on accountability throughout all levels of government and research institutions. And where, we might ask, was the CDC, which seems to have kept its knowledge of these cases under wraps.

Where indeed? Though this story is bad enough in and of itself, I bring it up mainly because senior scientists at the WHO have just recommended creating a genetically modified version of the smallpox virus. What could possibly go wrong, you say? Lots of things. For instance:
Four years ago, scientists in Australia genetically modified a mousepox virus and inadvertently created a highly virulent strain that could not be stopped by vaccination. But the WHO insisted the latest proposal to engineer the human smallpox virus was inherently safer.
It's worth mentioning, I think, that no catastrophic accident was ever prefaced by experts saying "This is a terribly dangerous idea and we probably shouldn't be doing it, especially without adequate safeguards. But what the only live once!" Public avowals of confidence and competence are, if anything, a warning sign that the situation probably isn't being taken seriously enough.

No comments: