Saturday, June 14, 2014

Why Isn't Denial Of The Risk of Artificial Virus Creation As Disreputable As Climate Change Denial?

One of my online friendships was ended when I insisted that not all possible or likely products of genetic engineering were going to be innocuous and that, eventually, through intention or accident or, most likely of all, human fudging, some uncontrollable harmful organism was going to be released into the wild to become a feral pathogen.   My former friend, who I really liked, is, unsurprisingly, a geneticist.  He was enraged that I wasn't willing to trust scientists to police science.  In the discussion (on a blog) there was some of the moldy old accusation that I'd violated the dogma that all intellectual inquiry is good and right and should never be even questioned.  I don't recall if anyone rolled out the Galileo manikin but that's almost always a part of this kind of thing.

I don't know if my former friend gardens or not but  fighting introduced invasive plants in the garden must account for a quarter or more of my time.   And, with one or two exceptions, those aren't a danger to life.   A better example would be the periodic invasions of the gypsy moth which we had here a decade or so back, which damaged large numbers of trees, many of which never recovered and which had a damaging effect on agriculture.   A lot of people had trouble with allergies, they believed to the feces or other biological consequences of suddenly having millions of caterpillars and moths with no native control on their reproduction except, eventually, starvation from depletion of anything they could eat.   The gypsy moth was an accidental introduction by the naturalist and astronomer, Professor Leopold Trouvelot,  when it escaped during what now we recognize as a hair-brained research project, trying a bit of gene manipulation (as it were), crossing them with silk-worms.    The only reason that we see what he was doing as hair-brained is that we have the combination of a century and a half of science and the experience of his accidental release of his research organisms into the wild where they can't be isolated and eliminated.   Apparently science in his time accepted him as a valid researcher.

I take more of a lesson from him and others like him in the past, though.  What looks like the best and most reliable science possible today is certainly no more able to perfectly contain organisms it works with than they were back then.  People have not definitively progressed past his practices.  Lapses are a given in human or any other activity.   For all of our conceited regard for our sophistication and the responsibility of what we allow ourselves by way of safeguards,  we are certainly deceiving ourselves.   And one of the lubricants that facilitates the slippery lie we tell ourselves is that we all, yes even their holinesses, elite scientists, are willing to cut ourselves barely acknowledged slack when it's a question of money, prestige or merely satisfying our curiosity.   When they allow themselves the permission to work with technologies that could, very conceivably create microorganisms that could do anything from cause massive harm to the environment right up to causing our extinction, there is a lot more reason to question them than there was to question Professor Trouvelot.   Posing those questions is more important than the end of a friendship, it is certainly more important than risking Heathering by a bunch of blog commentators.


The great geneticist who I respect more than most,  Richard Lewontin, wrote another fine essay as book review on this topic, last month.   He brings up a lot of things, from the motivations of biologists in creating synthetic biology.  To the point of what I wrote above, he said:

But there is a broader and seemingly more constructive motivation. Garrett cites Drew Endy, who is on the faculty of the Bioengineering Department at Stanford, as estimating that 2 percent of the US economy at present is derived from genetic engineering and synthetic biology and that this proportion is growing at an annual rate of 12 percent. We can see the results in such genetically engineered products as corn and tomatoes and the new micro-organisms that are now being created for the detection of toxic environmental pollutants.

The vitality of this sector of the economy is reflected in the International Genetically Engineered Machine contest, in which college and high school students compete in building new life forms. (This contest started at MIT and is now organized by a separate nonprofit.) An example, created in the 2006 contest, was a bacterium that detects arsenic in water by glowing. It was created by inserting DNA sequences that code for luminescence and arsenic sensitivity into a harmless bacterium and making sure the bacteria were healthy and could reproduce. The bĂȘte machine has ceased to be a mere metaphor and become a competitive construction game for late adolescents that, in turn, might be put to horrific uses, among them new weapons.

That last clause should give anyone pause.  If a geneticist of the renown and reputation of Lewontin sees something to be worried about in just the intentional product of this, then anyone who isn't worried about the prospect of such a "new weapon" being accidentally released is in a state of willful denial.

The rest of his essay contains even more troublesome ideas,  but not as troublesome as this article.

An international team of scientists lead by a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher have recreated, in the lab, a virus that’s “only three percent different” from the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed nearly 50 million people. The Guardian reports:

Writing in the journal Cell Host and Microbe Yoshihiro Kawaoka describes how his team analysed various bird flu viruses and found genes from several strains that were very similar to those that made up the 1918 human flu virus. They combined the bird flu genes into a single new virus, making a new pathogen that was only about 3% different from the 1918 human virus.

The freshly made virus – the first of several the team created – was more harmful to mice and ferrets than normal bird flu viruses, but not as dangerous as the 1918 strain. It did not spread between ferrets and none of the animals died. But the scientists went on to mutate the virus, to see what changes could make it spread. Seven mutations later, they had a more dangerous version that spread easily from animal to animal in tiny water droplets, the same way flu spreads in humans.

That’s right — not only did they closely recreate the virus, they also made it transmissible.

Despite the accomplishment, the scientific community isn’t all too thrilled with Kawaoka, calling his work “absolutely crazy.” As Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, put it: ”If society, the intelligent layperson, understood what was going on, they would say ‘What the F are you doing?’”

And it isn't just one prominent specialist who is calling this work incredibly irresponsible and dangerous, here's the end of the piece.

According to the Guardian, this has between a long-running tension between scientists: on the one side are the people who think it’s important to know how dangerous viruses work, and who insist that they’re being really, really careful; on the other are the people who believe doing this sort of thing creates a grossly unnecessary public health risk.

“The work they are doing is absolutely crazy. The whole thing is exceedingly dangerous,” Lord May, the former president of the Royal Society and one time chief science adviser to the UK government, insisted. “Yes, there is a danger, but it’s not arising form the viruses out there in the animals, it’s arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people.”

Given the choice between people who know what they're talking about speaking in that kind of language about what their colleagues are doing, and just trusting the researchers doing what could bring a catastrophic pandemic that they'll be real careful, IT'S ENTIRELY INSANE TO JUST TRUST THEM.

IT IS INSANE to just put your faith in the ones hoping to get a Nobel prize or maybe hoping to get a patent on their research as they blithely try to reproduce the "Spanish" Influenza virus.   The "Spanish" got the blame in this country for being the origin of the influenza, though the latest I heard was that they'd traced it back to pigs kept by the American Army in France - they'll probably change their mind about that too.  But I don't think it will be any confort if we can definitively trace another outbreak to the august and esteemed labs of Madison, Wisconsin.  Assuming there is anyone to write it up and get it published or presented on Nova.

I remember during the bird flu crisis a few years back listening to an interview on As It Happens on the CBC.  There was a Canadian angle to the story.  The interviewer was speaking to Matthew Meselson, the prominent geneticist and expert in the dangers of chemical and biological weapons, one of Lewontin's colleagues at Harvard.

At one point Meselson said that it was entirely possible for in influenza virus to mutate into a highly transmissible form that could, conceivably, wipe out the entire human species, world travel and population densities being what they are.   There was a pregnant pause before the interviewer asked if that were really possible.   Melseson confirmed that it was.   Given that there is a chance that nature could provide such a virus without our active help, perhaps taking advantage of fowl and pig farming in China or Iowa, or Maine, for that matter.   I'd really rather not have ambitious scientists and their grad students being the thin white line between us and the product of their intellectual curiosity and great expectations.

I have been around grad students who work with dangerous stuff, they are reliably goofy.  My best friend from high school died of cancer she attributed to the time she worked as a lab tech in an electron microscopy lab.  She said they used to joke about how the chemicals they used to fix samples would kill them all.   She didn't think it was funny when she told me about it, at the hospital, twenty years or so later.   And the dangers they were working with are nothing compared to what this is about, they couldn't replicate and infect people or other animals.


  1. Why does the image of a scientist clutching a test tube standing outside in a world of corpses and proclaiming, "Hey! I just invented a super-virus that's sure to get me a Nobel Prize! Hey, where is everybody?" come to mind?

  2. But try bringing this up on a blog or in a group of university graduates and just watch them squirm in unease before they get angry that you're committing an enormous heresy against "intellectual inquiry" or some such thing. That is before they go on to disdain the superstitious faith of other people in things that aren't going to get anyone killed.

    When I had the discussion I'm talking about, I'd just read a piece about the moratorium they'd put on just publishing research that could be useful to terrorists who wanted to try to develop biological weapons. It was as if these highly educated folk just couldn't understand why there might be some problem with it.

    Yet they don't believe science can be a religion and mock people who point out that is exactly what it is, even for some scientists.

  3. Their idea of what "religion" is, is the fundamental problem.

    To them, it's "believin' what you know ain't so." The anthropologists among the scientists just roll their eyes at that; they have better things to do than fight such ignorance.

    Sometimes I think they're right; sometimes I don't.