The Great Debate UK
from The Great Debate:
Over the past two months, a series of mishaps at the CDC and NIH -- involving mishandled anthrax, mislabeled influenza and misplaced smallpox -- has alarmed the scientific community. The common theme surrounding all of them is human error.
In June as many as 75 workers were exposed to live anthrax when researchers, failed to properly verify that anthrax spores were sterilized before moving them out of the high-level biosafety laboratory. In early July, NIH researchers discovered previously unknown stores of live smallpox at the NIH and transported them to the CDC for secure storage. Around the same time, the CDC disclosed that last March, several vials of supposedly mild influenza had been cross-contaminated with the highly lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu, exposing researchers to unanticipated risk of infection. A senior-level CDC director has now resigned and a major review of biosafety security protocols at the CDC and NIH is currently underway -- but more should be done.
These mishaps show why we need to stop conducting certain types of research on strains of flu virus that could cause worldwide epidemics, or pandemics. In these types of research -- which involve live, intact viruses that can spread from person to person -- the risks outweigh the benefits. The scientists who are investigating these strains hope to develop vaccines capable of preventing the spread of the viruses. But it’s possible that they could accidentally cause what they are trying to prevent. Additionally, actively trying to make these types of flu more dangerous, in order to develop vaccines against a pandemic virus, and publishing the recipes provides a handbook for potential bio terrorists who might create and release the viruses.
Don’t get me wrong. I support influenza research to help develop vaccines and rapid responses to deadly strains. Influenza research is critical to public health and is an essential part of biomedical research and public health policy.
- Bernard Murphy is investigations editor at Clinica World Medical Technology News. The opinions expressed are his own -
Bernard Murphy has been following the spread of avian and swine flu across the globe and is an expert in medical diagnostics and regulation. He explains how the threat of bird flu is still present and discusses the latest developments in diagnosing and combating the viruses and the threat they pose to the global economy.