Not all pathogen research should be done

Recently, a bit of an uproar occurred when the CDC reported that workers there had been accidentally exposed to the bacterium that causes anthrax.  The lesson from this?  Well, I think it is simple.  Accidents happen.  And they can happen anywhere to anyone.  No matter how careful one is.

A few days ago a friend and colleague Marc Lipsitch wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times that goes the next step from this incident: Anthrax? That’s Not the Real Worry –  In the Op-Ed he points out that we / the CDC we actually lucky that this incident involved anthrax because anthrax does not get transmitted from person to person.  We should be much more concerned with potential accidental releases of infectious pathogens.  Most importantly – and I believe correctly – Lipsitch then assails some of the research that has involved creating in the lab extra-virulent pathogens such as varieties of flu. He writes:

There are dozens of safe research strategies to understand, prevent and treat pandemic flu. Only one strategy – creating virulent, contagious strains – risks inciting such a pandemic. The anthrax incident reminds us of the dangers in even the best labs. We should stop creating new potential pandemic flu strains and shift the research dollars to safer, more productive flu studies.

I could not agree more.  Thank you Marc for writing this.  And here is hoping that researchers worldwide start to think more carefully about the real risks that their research might pose.

Pathogen Research

2 thoughts on “Not all pathogen research should be done

  1. Accidents are normal. Read “Normal Accidents” by Charles Perrow — Princeton University Press

    Perrow, now an emeritus professor at Yale, got started on accidents when he was commissioned to investigate the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant failure and has extended his scope to include industrial accitents, airline crashes, among several others. He provides a nice framework for managing modern, high technology according to centralized and de-centralized control strategies. The take-home is that accidents will happen:how can we best manage the processes/systems/organizations in which they occur?

  2. Sometimes we use so much time and money in solving problems we had the power not to create in the first place… (Cit.)

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Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. My lab is in the UC Davis Genome Center and I hold appointments in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and the Department of Evolution and Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences. My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis (see my lab site here which has more information on lab activities).  In addition to research, I am heavily involved in the Open Access publishing and Open Science movements.