Gallus Domesticus, Biotechnologist

By Edward Tenner
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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

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/01/gallus-domesticus-biotechnologist/33560/