Cutting-edge influenza research frozen

This past weekend I hung out at a brand-spanking new con, the Atlanta SciFi and Fantasy Expo. Made a bunch of new friends-- including the proud owner of an actual T.A.R.D.I.S. Randy and I had a marvelous time talking about ghosts, yetis, and vaccines/viruses. I sent him a link to my FreeOK talks including this one:

Randy booped right back with this:

NIH moving ahead with review of risky virology studies (February 25, 2015)

I gave that talk June 23, 2012, but I started talking about one topic in that presentation a bit earlier:


Well there seems to be an absence of a certain ornithological piece: a headline regarding mass awareness of a certain avian influenza variety… (June 29, 2012)

Apparently, the US government has given some contract to some stats company to calculate the 'risks and benefits' of researching deadly pathogens, including lab-evolved influenza. And theyre taking a year to figure out whether studying deadly pathogens is a good idea.

I stand by my statements from 2012. We can either study these pathogens in labs now, or we can wait for them to evolve into pandemics, and then try to figure out how they work/how to stop them.

All I can think about is 2015 Abbie, hopping into a T.A.R.D.I.S., going back to 1970 and telling President Nixon "There is this pathogen, HIV? Here is a vial of it! Scientists need to start studying it NOW!!!" and a bunch of politicians and luddite scientists grumping about saying "Well, we better not. Could be dangerous. Maybe the terrorists will get it."

I apologize to Alan Dove for copy/pasting a large part of his comment on the Science article here, but I have to highlight it:

Microbiologists have been deliberately altering the pathogenicity and transmissibility of deadly human pathogens since Pasteur. What's changed is that now we can elicit and study those changes much more precisely, and that we mandate much stricter safety protocols than we did a century ago. Those changes actually make the work safer, not riskier.

This is so frustrating.


More like this

"I stand by my statements from 2012. We can either study these pathogens in labs now, or we can wait for them to evolve into pandemics, and then try to figure out how they work/how to stop them."

Don't forget option three—place head in sand and pray. That one seems to be popular these days.

By Lancelot Gobbo (not verified) on 27 Feb 2015 #permalink

Abbie, you are super-duper cool, and you have a real talent for communicating science to laypeople. You're right up on the list with Ethan Siegel (astrophysics), and you & he could be the next generation of Sagan and Tyson.

My only critique of the video is that there's a room echo in the high mid-range vocal frequencies that makes it a bit more difficult to understand what you're saying. The fix for that in the future is to wear a condenser mic and have the production people adjust the frequency equalization.

Questions: If I understood you correctly, you said that the "scary experiment" with avian flu and ferrets, was actually benign and was seeking a path toward a vaccine for the expected H2H avian flu. Is that correct? From that I get the impression that you agree with those who believe that publishing viral genomes and developing novel viruses is not a substantial enough threat to warrant limits on publication. Is that correct, or what's your position on that debate, and do you have any links to recommended articles?

Reason I ask is, I've thus far believed that publication of viral genomes and experiments that deal with enhanced pathogenicity, is a bad idea and should be limited in such a manner as to prevent potential bioterrorism risk. However I respect your knowledge and opinions, so I'm open to being persuaded to change my position on this.


Now we know how Abbie started an epidemic; time travel with pathogens, indeed!?!

By starskeptic (not verified) on 28 Feb 2015 #permalink

I don't know, I can see both sides of the argument. To me, the issue of accidents is troubling, in that whatever people do, there will be accidents. Whether it be driving cars, flying planes, operating nuclear reactors or simply turning on the hot water when you meant to turn on the cold. The same holds true for deliberately creating pandemic viruses.

The question is whether the fallout is acceptable. If you wreck a car, maybe a couple individuals or families get killed. If you crash a plane, maybe a couple hundred people get killed. If you fuck up your pandemic virus research, potentially hundreds of millions of people get killed. If you read articles about the issue it's very troubling what some of the things are that critics are calling for because it means that a lot of what should be some of the most basic shit isn't even being done currently. Always remember the examples of lowriders and minitrucks, Abbie- just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

More voices call for action on lab biosafety
Robert Roos | News Editor | CIDRAP News | Jul 31, 2014…

Should We Shut Down Our Bioweapons Labs?
Jul 31, 2014…

Biocontainment Laboratories: Addressing the Terror Within
Deborah Cotton, MD, MPH, Deputy Editor
Ann Intern Med. 2014;161(8):609-610. doi:10.7326/M14-1668