Shouldn't regular citizens be able to weigh in on whether scientists are allowed to play with a virus that could kill a third of the population?
It might be the most lethal invention ever to come out of a lab. "I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one," the microbiologist Paul Kiem told The New Scientist.
The frightening new virus was created by Ron Fouchier, a researcher in the Netherlands, last year as he was experimenting with the bird flu. So far, human-to-human transmission of the bird flu has been rare because the virus lacks the necessary equipment to travel in a sneeze. But for years public-health experts have feared that it would one day go airborne. The bird flu has killed roughly 50 percent of the few people it has infected. If it could spread as easily as the seasonal flu, it would kill with the ferocity of a doomsday virus in a science-fiction movie.
I believe in scientific freedom. But the issue here is not free speech and thought. It's a debate about risk.
And now that worst-case virus may have arrived. In the course of his investigations, Fouchier inadvertently engineered a virus that passes its death sentence through a sneeze. For now, the virus only exists in a lab in Rotterdam. (A somewhat less lethal version was created by another team of scientists last year, in Madison, Wisconsin.) Though the virus has only been tested in ferrets, which have respiratory tracts similar to our own, many scientists agree there's a good chance it could be just as lethal in humans.
Fouchier and many of his colleagues want to continue working with the super-bird-flu, despite its dangers. Meanwhile, a number of scientists -- along with the editorial board of The New York Times -- argue that this kind of research might just lead to the apocalypse. "We nearly always champion unfettered scientific research and open publication of the results," The New York Times editors wrote. But "in this case it looks like the research should never have been undertaken because the potential harm is so catastrophic and the potential benefits from studying the virus so speculative. Unless the scientific community and health officials can provide more persuasive justifications than they have so far, the new virus, which is in the Netherlands, ought to be destroyed."
In response to such concerns, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked scientists to suspend research on the lab-created bird flu until late March. During this brief moratorium, an elite group of professionals will discuss how to go forward with the research. The debate will happen in a closed-door meeting. You and I are not invited.
Why has the public been shut out? Shouldn't regular citizens be able to weigh in on whether scientists are allowed to play with a virus that could kill a third of the world's population? Of course, in almost every other case, I believe in scientific freedom. But the issue here is not free speech and thought. It's a debate about risk. In this case, the risk posed by noodling with the super-bird-flu is so extreme that it affects all of us. Are you willing to bet your life on this research?
It distresses me, then, that the conversation is taking place in a closed room. Members of the public should be able to speak out as well.
In an attempt to do just that, I called the NIH's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and asked whether I could submit my comments through email or a public website. I was told I could not. (However, the receptionist did give me a street address, and said that I could mail in a paper letter.)
In my response to my continued inquiries and pestering, an NIH communications officer told me that the NIH would provide an email address for feedback. She said she'd get back to me. That was more than three weeks ago. I haven't heard anything from her.
It will be nice when our bureaucrats finally get around to adopting technology from the late 20th century -- before we get too far into the 21st.
Image: Csaba Peterdi/Shutterstock.