Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"UW a focus in avian flu controversy"

UW a focus in avian flu controversy
Lauren A. Michael Science Editor. The Daily Cardinal
Sunday, January 22, 2012


You may or may not have noticed dramatic headlines over the last few weeks regarding research on the deadly avian flu virus. A variety of news sources have led with titles noting a "mutant killer virus" and "science gone wrong."

It can be really hard to distinguish the truth from the drama, especially when a controversy places your university under the media microscope.

You can read the entire piece here.

I'm not sure what to make of this article. It appears to be simple PR spin rather than actual reporting. But the author is a new grad student who is listed as a research assistant trainee at the INSTITUTE FOR MOLECULAR VIROLOGY which leads me to think that she might actually believe what she wrote. If she were in one of the journalism programs, I'd think she was just completing an assignment on fooling the public.

What makes this article sort of interesting is that she is probably just voicing the chatter she's hears where she works. Lab personnel are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of conforming to group norms, obedience to authority, and the other well researched and documented risks of group identification, particularly when there is a perceived in-group and out-group. This phenomena is on full display whenever one takes the time to observe the group behavior of the university's vivisectors and the administrators, staff and faculty associated with their work. (My favorite work on this dark and interesting part of human behavior is Phillip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. 2007. The second half of the book amounts to a survey of many studies and situations that demonstrate the risks of "situational influences.")

As a result of being a part of a group that probably feels somewhat under attack at the moment, and listening to the likely uncritical self-supporting and self-justifying conversations, its little wonder that she is so confused and feels a need to tell her fellow students the "truth." No matter how limited the local news coverage has been, it is a near certainty that the staff and students associated with the virology labs at UW-Madison are keenly aware of what's being reported elsewhere. The author understandably has projected her personal interest onto the rest of the student body. (I doubt that more than a handful of non-biology students even know that there is a storm raging over the work at their university.)

Anyway, I thought I'd take a moment here to look at her statements because they very likely reflect the opinions of those in the labs she believes to be the "true" authorities on the questions surrounding the invention of what may be, so far as humans and perhaps some other mammals and some birds are concerned, the most dangerous virus on the planet.

She says that the world-wide concern is media-induced. She calls it "media-induced fear." But the risk isn't a media contrivance. I would say that the fear is scientist-informed. The earliest alarms seem to have been raised by people like Ian Ramshaw of Canberra's National Centre for Biosecurity (NCB) and Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Ebright apparently said early on that the research should never have been conducted in the first place because of the grave public health risks.

The outspoken concern by authoritative scientists -- urging the censoring of the details of this work -- is very unusual. Very unusual too, maybe even unique, is the request from the National Institutes of Health (under the direction of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity) to the world's two premier science journals, Science and Nature, not publish papers detailing how this new version of the bird flu was created. (See Fears grow over lab-bred flu: Scientists call for stricter biosafety measures for dangerous avian-influenza variants. Declan Butler. Nature. 20 December 2011.)

Unlike most local Madison news outlets, reporters in other markets, particularly science reporters, took notice and explained to the public why there is such largely unprecedented concern among scientists about this research.

The author then mentions the potential risks, but dismisses them with a claim about the potential benefits of the research.
Throw in the fact that the H5N1 flu has killed nearly 60% of humans who have contracted it (though only 570 people have been infected worldwide) and you can understand the current media-induced fears-that scientists are providing bioterrorists with instructions to create a virus that would kill more than half of the human population.

Again, that's pretty dramatic. Not only does such a statement ignore the practical limitations of flu infection and laboratory science, but also the more important reasons for performing such research and the role of regulatory measures in preventing such a situation.
But her justification is the mantra of all basic biomedical research -- speculative benefits that rarely come to pass. In this case, it's like saying we ought to invent a doomsday time-bomb so that we can learn how to defuse it. That's nuts, but nutty beliefs are one of the common results of the sort of situational influences examined by Zimbardo.

The author seems unable to see what is in front of her, even when she writes it down. She says: "In an introductory article from Science Insider (of the journal Science), Fouchier is quoted saying that his lab created what is 'probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.'" That seems like a pretty clear statement about the danger given the sometimes high mortality associated with other viruses that are here naturally.

The author has apparently no knowledge of the history of the biosecurity failures in the U.S., abroad, or at her own institution. She says:
Regarding any fears that harmful viral agents could escape from such laboratory spaces, the measures taken by the IIVR represent "the most stringent set of federal guidelines I've ever seen," according to James Tracy, former associate dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, in the On Wisconsin article. Previously, federal research funding agencies, like the National Institutes of Health, would have had to approve Kawaoka's research.
This is an odd statement. A very odd statement. Surely she knows that Kawaoka's lab's most secure space is classified as Bio-Safety Level-3-Agriculture, or just BSL-3-Ag.

A BSL-3-Ag lab is a safer place to handle dangerous pathogens than a a BSL-1 or BSL-2 certified lab. A BSL-3-Ag lb has special requirements because large "loosely" housed animals are used. You can read some of the technical details here.

But as safe and secure as the Kawaoka BSL-3-Ag area is, it's no BSL-4 lab. These two photos from the CDC give some sense of the difference:

Notice that the fellow on the left has the back of his head exposed and is wearing a lab coat over his clothes. The people on the right are more or less in space suits.

James Tracy's comment about a lab at the UW-Madison having "the most stringent set of federal guidelines" that he'd ever seen is silly and either intentionally misleading or based on an absence of knowledge. (Frankly though, I don't think Tracy's comments should be given much weight, regardless of what he says. In my opinion he intentionally mislead the public about what has taken place at the university. Thankfully he's no longer at the university. See my response to a letter to the editor from him here: Millions dead within weeks.

The author provides her readers with a reassuring balm: "With respect to the publication of results, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has been called in, as it has been for similar situations in the past."

Unfortunately, there has only been one other case that could in any way been seen as somewhat similar, and that was the crazy resurrection of the previously extinct 1918 Spanish flu. Read my essay linked to above for more on Kawaoka's involvement in that affair.

But even that insanity is dwarfed by the craziness of creating even deadlier diseases.

If in fact, the author's opinions reflect those of her superiors and virus lab co-workers, then we ought to be concerned about their faith in the system and their failure to take note of the many problems on their own campus regarding biosafety. I suspect, as I said at the start, that her opinions on this matter give us a very good indication of what's being said in the virus labs on campus. That's not cause for comfort.

I'll give Ms. Michael the last word here. She sums up with her expression of faith and pride. She is one of the insiders, proud to be part of the elite club that sees all the current controversy as just so much media-induced nonsense. You can't argue with faith:
While the NSABB has yet to make a decision, there are many factors for audiences to consider in judging for themselves. Either way, UW-Madison's place in such a debate is an example of its prominence in such worldwide research efforts.

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