A recent report by Lipsitch and Galvani warns that some virus experiments risk unleashing global pandemic. In particular, there are the controversial “gain of function” experiments seeking to test how likely bird flu is to go from a form that cannot be transmitted between humans to a form that can – by trying to create such a form. But one can also consider geoengineering experiments: while current experiments are very small-scale and might at most have local effects, any serious attempt to test climate engineering will have to influence the climate measurably, worldwide. When is it acceptable to do research that threatens to cause the disaster it seeks to limit?
So the US government is likely being shutdown, which will suspend the work of many government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But, fair citizens, I reassure you – in its wisdom, the US Congress has decided that the military’s salaries will be excluded from the shutdown.
With all due respect to military personnel, this is ludicrous. The US military is by far the world’s largest, there is little likelihood of any major war (the last great power war was in 1953), and no sign of minor wars starting, either. Suspended salaries may be bad for morale and long term retention, but they aren’t going to compromise US military power.
Contrast with the CDC’s work. The world’s deadliest war was the second world war, with 60 million dead, over a period of years (other wars get nowhere close to this). The Spanish flu killed 50-100 million on its own, in a single year. Smallpox couldn’t match that yearly rate, but did polish off 300-500 million of us during the 20th century. Bog standard flu kills between a quarter and a half million every year, and if we wanted to go back further, the Black Death wiped out at least a third of the population of Europe. And let’s not forget HIV with its 30 million deaths to date.
No need to belabour the point… Actually there is: infectious diseases are the greatest killers in human history, bar none. If any point needs belabouring, that’s one. And a shutdown would have an immediate negative impact on public health: for instance, the CDC would halt its influenza monitoring program. Now, of course, this year’s flu may not turn out to be pandemic – we can but hope, because that’s all we can do now! And if we have another SARS starting somewhere in the United States, it will be a real disaster.
We’re closing our eyes and hoping that the greatest killer in human history will be considerate enough to not strike while we sort out our politics.
It was probably hard for the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to avoid getting plenty of coal in its Christmas stockings this year, sent from various parties who felt NSABB were either stifling academic freedom or not doing enough to protect humanity. So much for good intentions.
The background is the potentially risky experiments on demonstrating the pandemic potential of bird flu: NSABB urged that the resulting papers not include “the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”. But it can merely advice, and is fairly rarely called upon to review potentially risky papers. Do we need something with more teeth, or will free and open research protect us better?