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The risks of tinkering with dangerous pathogens

In an effort to understand new and rare infectious diseases, researchers often use recombinant DNA technology to create novel strains in the lab. In 2012, researchers did just that, creating strains of the H5N1 influenza virus that were transmissible between mammals, setting off a debate about the ethics of creating viruses that were potentially more dangerous than those that occurred naturally.

Earlier this year, in July, a group called the Cambridge Working Group convened to continue discussing these questions. David Relman, MD, a biosecurity expert at Stanford, is a member of the group and spoke to Paul Costello about the risks and benefits of lab-created pathogens. Highlights of their conversation are in a piece in the most recent issue of Inside Stanford Medicine, where Relman notes:

My greatest fear is that someone will create a highly contagious and highly pathogenic infectious agent that does not currently exist in nature, publish its genetic blueprint, allow it to escape the laboratory by accident, or else enable a malevolent person or persons to synthesize the agent with the intention of releasing it in a deliberate manner. Although these may be unlikely scenarios, they could have catastrophic consequences, which is why I and others feel that we need to sensitize everyone to these possibilities and decide how to manage these risks ahead of time. I want to be clear: I am not opposed to laboratory work on dangerous pathogens, especially if they are known to exist in nature. Rather, I am opposed to high-risk experiments and, in particular, those that seek to create novel, dangerous pathogens that cannot be justified by well-founded expectations of near-term, critical benefits for public health — benefits that clearly outweigh the risks, and benefits that cannot be achieved through other means.

But not all researchers advocate the same level of caution. A few weeks after the Cambridge Working Group formed, another group called Scientists for Science to advocate in favor of using recombinant versions of pathogens in order to understand them better. Relman says that the two groups are probably not as far apart as they appear. He says he fully supports studying disease-causing bacteria, but:

The place where we may disagree is on whether we are willing to acknowledge that there may be experiments — probably few and far between — that perhaps ought not to be undertaken because of an unusual degree of risk. Just because a scientist can think up an experiment doesn’t mean it should be performed.

Relman elaborates on these topics in the 1:2:1 podcast with Costello above.

Previously:  How-to manual for making bioweapons found on captured Islamic State computer, Microbial mushroom cloud: How real is the threat of bioterrorism? (Very) and Stanford bioterrorism expert comments on new review of anthrax case

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