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Apr 15, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 8)

Talking about H5N1 Research

Critical Debate Should Not Be a Monologue, Laypeople Need to Weigh In with Concerns

  • Contempt Makes It Worse

    Experts understandably have a hard time being respectful of interfering laypeople. But scientists’ visible contempt for the public’s concerns actually increases the risk of such interference.

    Everyone (including me) agrees that it was a good move when H5N1 researchers declared a moratorium. But even the Nature letter (www.nature.com/nature/journal/v481/n7382/full/481443a.html) announcing the moratorium dripped with disdain.

    Consider this over-reassuring sentence:

    “Responsible research on influenza virus transmission using different animal models is conducted by multiple laboratories in the world using the highest international standards of biosafety and biosecurity practices that effectively prevent the release of transmissible viruses from the laboratory.”

    Nothing can go wrong … go wrong … go wrong…. I don’t have space to document all the lab accidents that have released transmissible viruses. A 1977 lab accident is thought to have released the human H1N1 flu virus, which had not circulated since 1957; it spread globally for the next 32 years. As for the risk of an intentional release—and the systematic underestimation of that risk inside the flu world—see my article on “A Blind Spot for Bad Guys” at www.psandman.com/col/H2N2.htm.

    Here’s a worse example:

    “Despite the positive public-health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research.”

    Note the extraordinary lack of parallelism. We usually contrast benefits with risks —or if you prefer, potential benefits with potential risks, or even perceived benefits with perceived risks. These are all parallel formulations. But the Nature letter doesn’t contrast the confidently asserted “positive public-health benefits” with risks … or with concerns about those risks … or even with fears about those risks … but with something much more ephemeral: a mere “perceived fear.”

    As used by these scientists, public “perceptions” are misperceptions, and public “fears” are unjustified fears. If the insult here escapes you, think of a risk you take seriously and imagine someone labeling it a perceived fear.

    Paradoxically, this contempt for public concerns might actually provoke stricter regulation of science. If scientists are nasty and myopic enough when claiming that only scientists’ opinions matter regarding what they do and what they publish, society might rebel against such unbridled scientific autonomy. It’s unlikely. Most people have a strong conviction that governments don’t know how to regulate scientists and we’re better off leaving them alone. That autonomy has nurtured a lot of scientific arrogance, but the arrogance hasn’t yet undermined the autonomy, and odds are it won’t this time either.

    But if there’s a threat to scientific autonomy, it’s not coming from those questioning the wisdom of the two studies. It is coming from the arrogant, scientifically dishonest, risk-insensitive way some scientists are responding to the questioning.

  • What I’d Say

    The H5N1 debate isn’t a monologue. Especially for the side that wants to publish the two papers and carry on, listening is more important than talking. Validating the other side’s concerns is more important than talking. Implementing some of the other side’s recommendations for additional biosafety and biosecurity measures (and giving them credit for the improvements) is more important than talking.

    But when the time comes for talking, here’s what I’d say:

    “This is uniquely dangerous research, so much so that it has stimulated an extremely unusual push to regulate scientific research and publication. If we’re going to do such research at all, we need to prove that we’re taking safety and security seriously, we need to implement more precautions, and we need information about those precautions (and all infractions) to be publicly available. Moreover, we need to prove that the research is important enough to justify taking the sizable risks.

    “This isn’t about research autonomy generally. It’s about whether it makes sense to create a possible monster in our labs in order to do research that might (or might not) have huge payoffs in preventing or fighting the natural monster that could emerge at any time. The research we’re proposing to do is only part of a coherent agenda to address the risk of a potentially catastrophic H5N1 pandemic, an agenda that includes the following other priorities…”


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