Gallus Domesticus, Biotechnologist

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"It sounds like both the chickens and their farmers are in the Federal Witness Protection Program!"

That's just one comment on a Wall Street Journal Page One feature on the security around the farms producing eggs for the flu vaccine program. Other readers were incensed that terrorists would use the intelligence to slip deadlier viruses into the pipeline. In this case, I think the security level was reasonable and wisely discreet rather than theatrical. Animal epidemics, even without terrorist intervention or spread to human populations, have cost billions. Once they begin, strategies based on mathematical modeling can create political and economic instability, as my colleague Dr.Laura Kahn's article on the 2001 British foot-and-mouth outbreak illustrates.

Chicken security, then, is actually serious business. But the need for avian-based vaccine production, complete with roosters in residence to assure that the eggs will be fertilized, is a symptom of the lag of much technology beyond basic science more than 55 years after the publication of the original double helix paper and over 30 years of bioengineering. By contrast, less than 14 years passed from Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928 to the massively challenging wartime scale-up project that produced enough of the antibiotic to treat the first patient in 1942. It took just six years from the Nobel-winning finding in 1948 that the polio virus could be grown in non-nerve cells (eliminating the risk of infecting the central nervous system) and the announcement of trials of what became known as Salk vaccine in 1954.

Not that research has been stagnant; there are promising alternatives. But none have been approved yet by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to my knowledge. Meanwhile conventional production was blamed for delays last fall, so the tried-and-true system may not seem so safe or sound a pandemic or two from now. (See the Freakonomics post, comments, and links for more on this.) I don't know enough about the science, technology, law, economics, and politics of the delay to explain it, much less to cast blame. But as for the allegedly accelerating progress of technology, ten million hens would beg to differ.

Photo credit: Katie Brady/Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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