The research into deadly influenza pathogens that is happening now in labs all around the world presents a real and dangerous threat, Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, writes in the New York Times.
The recent discovery by the CDC that 75 of its workers were exposed to possible anthrax infection is just another example of the biothreat these high containment labs pose; and we should be glad that it was only Anthrax, Lipsitch says. Exposure to a contagious pathogen could be much more troubling.
"Unlike experiments with anthrax, creating such flu strains in the lab presents a danger that affects us all, because once it is out, such a strain would be extremely hard to control," Litsitch says.
And this most recent Anthrax exposure was not an isolated case. A new H1N1 flu strain popped up unexpectedly in 1997 and spread globally for three decades, he says. Genetic evidence suggests that it escaped from a lab in China or the Soviet Union. More recently, in 2004 nine people in Beijing were infecting by a SARS outbreak, and between 2003 and 2009 there were 395 "potential release events" and 66 "potential loss events" in American labs involving some of the most lethal bacteria and viruses.
The argument for this type of research is that it enables scientists to develop vaccines to respond to influenza and other pathogens, but Lipsitch says the development of good vaccines has more to do with studying immune responses than finding out which genetic sequences make viruses transmissible.
"Dozens of effective vaccines protect us against microbes for which we have little understanding of the precise genetic requirements for transmission," he writes.
He also says these studies are limited; it is not as if they are generating lists of genetic "danger signs" that can be used to cross-check between viruses in birds and high-risk viruses in humans.
"We should stop creating new potential pandemic flu strains and shift the research dollars to safer, more productive flu studies," he writes.