Guest Post: Scientists aren’t always the best people to evaluate the risks of scientific research

Written by Simon Beard, Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge

How can we study the pathogens that will be responsible for future global pandemics before they have happened? One way is to find likely candidates currently in the wild and genetically engineer them so that they gain the traits that will be necessary for them to cause a global pandemic.

Such ‘Gain of Function’ research that produces ‘Potential Pandemic Pathogens’ (GOF-PPP for short) is highly controversial. Following some initial trails looking at what kinds of mutations were needed to make avian influenza transmissible in ferrets, a moratorium has been imposed on further research whilst the risks and benefits associated with it are investigated. Continue reading

US Congress shutsdown CDC, also other unimportant agencies

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.


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