Primal Numbers – Vaccinating Pandora

When we imagine scientists tinkering with DNA, we like to think of them creating cool stuff. Things like cloned dinosaurs or alien-human hybrids. But what if they decide to recreate the deadly Spanish flu virus, which killed an estimated 50 million people in the pandemic of 1918? That’s what a group of researchers has done, opening a Pandora’s Box that should be left closed.

The virus was created by a group of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As The Guardian reported, they “used a technique called reverse genetics to build the virus from fragments of wild bird flu strains.” The new pathogen isn’t an exact duplicate of the original Spanish flu but it’s incredibly close. After manipulating the DNA of several viruses, the scientists managed to create one that spreads easily between animals and is “only about 3% different from the 1918 human virus.”

The question, of course, is why anyone would want to do such a thing. To a certain degree the answer makes sense. In the wild, viruses can swap DNA and mutate into entirely new forms that humans and animals haven’t a natural immunity against. Understanding how those mutations occur?even creating them?could let us react much faster to create vaccines against powerful new flu strains.

But plenty of other scientists say that creating deadly pathogens is dangerous and irresponsible. They argue that creating a vaccine for a specific mutation isn’t much use since there are dozens of other possible mutations that could occur. In other words, it’s impossible to plan for the random alterations of viruses.

No doubt both sides could argue statistics all day, but let’s look at the practical reasons against it as well.

First of all, who gets to decide? This isn’t a scientific or medical creation where potential damage is limited to the people who took a drug or underwent a procedure. Those errors are common enough, and getting people to acknowledge harm and make reparations can take decades. Just look at the history of Thalidomide victims.

If you’re accidentally exposed to a genetically engineered virus, though, transmission is random. You don’t get to choose whether to try it out. If something goes wrong it could affect millions of people all over the world?people who had no say in whether they wanted to participate in the effects of the research.

This quandary was tackled in a Guardian column, which suggested that the public should have a say in whether this kind of research should be allowed. In theory, a good idea. In practice, it’s got serious drawbacks. Like the fact that scientific literacy among the general public tends to be low.

Take this 2013 EKOS survey, for example. The poll revealed that Canadians ranked first out of 35 countries in scientific literacy. Sounds good, until you consider that our ranking is based on true/false questions such as “Does the sun go around the earth or does the earth go around the sun?”

Getting that question right might suggest we have a decent level of general science knowledge, but the fact remains that “fewer than half of us would be able to read and understand a newspaper article about a new scientific discovery.”

If that’s the case, how many people would truly be able to weigh the data and make an informed decision on whether to create deadly viruses in a lab?

Then there’s the problem of pathogens escaping the lab. It’s not just the stuff of Hollywood movie plots. There are plenty of real-life examples too. Like the 2007 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain that led to over 1,500 animals being culled. The disease had been contained in a high-security lab but a broken water line carried it outside and onto the tires of construction vehicles. That’s just one of several examples in this National Post article on viruses being accidentally spread from the lab.

Do we need to study viruses and try to prevent outbreaks? Of course we do. But deliberately recreating deadly viruses seems counterintuitive, like opening a scientific Pandora’s Box that’s been lying safely dormant. Let’s just hope that, unlike the original fable, nothing dangerous escapes.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.