ScienceInsider has an excellent roundup of informed opinions here. I share the concerns of Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch:
“The fact that the global population is being put at risk by such experiments, to an appreciable but unknown degree, without being informed, much less consenting, is an ethical problem that has not been faced squarely.”
The real issue here is of tail risk. Accidents do happen in labs. In this case, the potential consequences of such an accident would be extreme. In a sense, this reminds me of the first test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico–the scientists involved weren’t completely sure that the thing wouldn’t ignite the entire world’s atmosphere. I suppose they went ahead because the value proposition in terms of ending the War was very attractive to the ultimate decision makers.
As you’ve probably heard, there are two of them out there drawing a great deal of controversy because they purport to show how to molecularly engineer this deadly flu virus to be more transmissible. Recall, that the global threat from a given flu virus is a function of both mortality rate and transmissibility rate
Now, the US Biosecurity Panel is calling for a second “Asilomar” to consider how to handle such manuscripts in the future, with a publishing moratorium of “perhaps three months”. ScienceInsider has the story here.
As a journal editor, I have a huge stake in how this is handled. On the one hand, open science, is essential to scientific progress. We need to have sufficient information in the manuscript for independent replication of the results, particularly if they are consequential. On the other hand, we don’t want to give the recipe for global catastrophe to an individual (or group) with ill intent.
Ideas that are out there right now converge around the lines of publishing results and holding methods for those parties who are properly vetted (perhaps by the CDC or WHO). But I’m not sure that would work, because the methods of molecular biology are really well-known (see biohackers), and in this case, the results alone, might provide the essential “launch” key.
Here’s another very interesting article, Perrone et al. that we all can read because it’s open-access over at PLoS Pathogens.
For those who are non-scientists, read the author’s summary. Money quote:
Our data shows excessive immune cell infiltration in the lungs contributing to severe consolidation and tissue architecture destruction in mice infected with highly pathogenic (HP) influenza viruses, supporting the histopathological observations of lung tissue from 1918 and H5N1 fatalities.
From the Effect Measure blog–read the comments also.
One of the key reasons why pandemic flu kills you is the cytokine storm–essentially a hyper-effective response of the immune system. The cytokine storm, in response to the invading flu virus, essentially leads to massive organ failure. Here’s a recent article from PNAS about strategies to control the flu-induced cytokine storm. The notion is that if we could do so, pandemic flu would, like seasonal flu, just be a miserable experience–not a life threatening one.
And here’s another article
from PLoS showing just how complex this system really is. Recent attempts to dial down the cytokine storm using biologicals have been problematic.