Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Public's Safety

Read this:

Scientists Brace for Media Storm Around Controversial Flu Studies. Martin Enserink. American Association for the Advancement of Science. November 23, 2011.

If you live near a university or other facility involved in infectious disease research, I suggest you move somewhere else; especially if you have children.

Frankly though, there may be nowhere to go.

We call the strain of influenza that swept around the world in a matter of months the 1918 Spanish Flu because it killed so very many people in such a very short time. Unlike other diseases, it didn't single out the sick or the elderly; it killed healthy young adults as readily as it did the elderly and infirm.

The 1918 Spanish Flu was and remains the most deadly most virulent disease humanity has ever encountered. Ever. It was essentially extinct until idiot scientists receiving salaries sucked from average people's paychecks traveled to the Canadian permafrost, dug up the remains of people who had died from the Spanish Flu, and revived the virus.

As idiotic as these grave robbers were, they couldn't have done their dirty work without the support and backing of university research oversight committees and government funding.

In other words, these weren't mad scientists working in the dark of night; these were mainstream researchers acting under the auspices of respected and fully authorized public institutions, like the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Here's a January 18, 2007, backgrounder from the BBC:

Lethal secrets of 1918 flu virus
Millions were killed by the virus
Scientists who recreated "Spanish flu" - the 1918 virus which killed up to 50m people - have witnessed its remarkable killing power first hand.

The reconstitution of the 1918 Spanish Flu occurred very recently. The results of the resurrection remain to be seen.

But, as deadly and dangerous as the Spanish Flu was, and now is once again, it killed only 8 to 10 percent of all the young adults on the planet. Only.

Thanks to the work of scientists like the University of Wisconsin's Yoshihiro Kawaoka we now have at our finger tips the opportunity to kill many, many more people.

I'm not suggesting that Kawaoka or anyone else is preparing to unleash this newest plague upon us, but Kawaoka and many other researchers around the world have proven themselves unable to maintain the security needed to keep such deadly organisms contained.

The most well known recent case is the hoof and mouth disease outbreak in England. But, unfortunately, and very disconcertingly, serious bio-containment breaches and failures of judgment regarding bio-containment of serious and deadly diseases aren't unusual. And, of course, even a single slip-up could lead to wide-spread disease and death.

But hey, there's money in it, oodles of it, so the institutions pocketing the associated tax-payer dollars rationalize their way out of the apparent cul-de-sac of a possible global pandemic. After all, we can trust scientists to do the right and prudent thing. Like building a hydrogen bomb.

The thing that drives me nuts about all of this (nuttier, some might say), is that the system of oversight in place today, the system that the involved institutions tell us we can rely on and ought to trust, is made up of people who have a vested financial and professional interest in promoting and defending the interests of the institution they work for.

The people approving things like the serial passage of deadly viruses through animals in order to create a super-deadly disease, are the same people who say they consider the morality -- that is, they fairly weigh the costs to the animals -- of doing things like keeping them hungry for their entire life, infecting them with diseases certain to kill them, keeping them in barren cages for decades, staging fights between them, causing deformities, or any of the myriad ways they think it appropriate and just to hurt them in the name of science.

Approving the creation of potentially human species-eliminating viruses strongly suggests that all other decisions made by any institution or government ought to be looked upon with serious and probing skepticism.


I imagine that nearly every university and research institution receiving federal tax dollars has a bioethics department or at least someone on staff who claims to be a bioethicist. This is certainly the case at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The Chair of the UW-Madison College of Letters and Sciences Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC) is a bioethicist.

The public relation interests of institutions like the UW-Madison are clearly well-served by having "bioethicists" approve experiments of questionable morality.

I had a recent very brief conversation with the College of Letter and Sciences ACUC chair Robert Streiffer at a purportedly pubic forum on the ethics of using animals -- particularly monkeys -- in the university's (lavishly and publicly-funded) research.

I asked whether he had yet read veterinarian Andrew Knight's new book, The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experimentation. (The Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series, 2011.) He hadn't, but said he would have to add it to his need-to-read list. (I empathize with him.)

As far as I know, Knight's book is the most comprehensive compilation of systematic reviews of the utility of animal-based research as a means of advancing human clinical care yet published. The studies included in Knight's book seem to show that animal-based research isn't a very productive methodology. I mentioned to Strieffer that according to the reviews cited by Knight, that most animal-based research papers are never cited by other scientists.

Streiffer's response was that while that might be true, the UW-Madison researchers seeking approval from his committee produce papers that are highly cited, and so, their proposed experiments are justifiably approved.

Time did not permit me to probe his opinion of Knight's citation of evidence showing that even highly cited animal-based research findings infrequently translate into meaningful improvements in human health care.

I mention this apparent sidetrack from the issue of putting humanity's survival at risk because Streiffer, as a bioethicist, ought, one might suppose, be more sensitive to the potential repercussions of research like Kawaoka's. But no one at the UW-Madison seems to have voiced any concern what-so-ever about Kawaoka's and his ilk's potentially devastating creations.

This might be because Kawaoka's research is highly cited. And even a university-level bioethicist is unable to escape the corrupting power of the seeming authoritative approval of such a fact. Publishing papers that are highly cited is deemed sufficient reason to approve painful and deadly experiments on animals -- no matter the benefit to humans.

It isn't surprising then that a high number of citations is also sufficient to gain approval for the creation of diseases capable of exterminating the very species for whose benefit the unending torture of so many other animals is defended.

If you live near a university or other facility involved in infectious disease research, I suggest you move somewhere else; especially if you have children.

Frankly though, there may be nowhere to go.

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