The influenza viruses being created and studied in Yoshihiro Kawaoka's lab are dangerous.
I could put a string of adjectives in front of dangerous, words like insanely, irresponsibly, foolishly, greedily, blindly, hugely, ridiculously, you get my drift. I'll just say dangerous, or maybe dangerous and cruel.
Here's what I understand to be the gist of Kawaoka's and UW-Madion's defense of his controversial influenza virus experiments. Because pandemic flu has the potential to kill very large numbers of people, it is prudent to try to be prepared before another pandemic breaks out. We should be prepared for a virus like the one that caused the 1918 Spanish flu. One part of being prepared is understanding the virus as well as we can. By studying the virus's genetics, it is possible to identify genes involved in a virus's various characteristics, like it's transmissibility and its ability to slip past an animal's immune system. Such knowledge could lead to a universal flu vaccine that could make influenza as rare as smallpox. That goal justifies the genetic manipulation of flu viruses to make them more dangerous and justifies the very slight chance of the public being exposed to the virus.
A 1918 Spanish flu infection is frequently fatal in mice, macaques, guinea pigs, ferrets, and humans. It is highly transmissible and is thought to move easily between birds and mammals. If the reconstructed virus or one his mutated more virulent strains were to somehow escape from the Kawaoka lab, the seriousness of the potential resulting pandemic is hard to overstate. A large portion of the human population could be killed as well as many animals of other species.
The effectiveness of flu vaccines is notoriously iffy. Some years, among healthy people, a flu vaccine can be can as much as 70% effective, in other years flu vaccines provide little benefit. This variability is due to the variability of the possible virus strains that can emerge. Researchers note that there are millions of possibilities. Flu vaccine manufacturers predict the strain that will be prevalent year to year; sometime they come fairly close and the vaccine is somewhat effective, other years they get it wrong and the vaccines aren't beneficial. Flu vaccine manufacturing is an odd business. There is a large financial payoff whether or not your product works. The holy grail is a universal vaccine; but the large number of possible strains makes the likelihood of a universal vaccine remote according to experts.
The flu was responsible for 36,000 deaths and over 200,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. annually during the 1990s. For comparison, heart disease and cancer were each responsible for almost 600,000 deaths annually in the U.S. [Molinari, Noelle-Angelique M., et al. "The annual impact of seasonal influenza in the US: measuring disease burden and costs." Vaccine 25.27 (2007): 5086-5096.]
The potential costs and potential benefits should be weighed against each other in order to come to a rational fact-based decision. We can make a list of the pros and cons.
1. A universal flu vaccine; influenza defeated.
2. Comfortable sometimes lavish incomes for flu researchers.
3. Large financial benefits for the institutions they work in.
4. Immense profits if a universal vaccine is invented.
1. No universal flu vaccine in spite of endless millions of tax dollars being spent.
2. The proliferation of labs around the world working on mutated potentially even more dangerous versions of the 1918 Spanish flu.
3. A bio-warfare influenza virus race.
4. A lab accident or mistake that allows the virus to escape.
5. Millions of people and other animals dead in a matter of weeks.
6. Human and other mammalian extinctions.
Both the pros and the cons include elements of both certainty and only slight possibility.
On the side of those who defend the experiments, I suspect that the certainty of items 2 and 3 on the Pro list are the main motivators behind the silly, dangerous, and self-serving statements from the University of Wisconsin about Kawaoka's research and their petulant reaction to criticism. It appears to me that the University of Wisconsin has determined that the certainty of large amounts of money outweighs the slight possibility of an unprecedented catastrophe.
Above, I noted that the research is dangerous and cruel. The animals used by Kawaoka suffer terribly. The animals he uses are said to drown "from within as their lungs filled with blood and fluid."
There are other factors that contribute to what I take to be the widespread ethical blindness afflicting the University. I've written about some of them here.
This just in: "Bio-Unsafety Level 3: Could the Next Lab Accident Result in a Pandemic? So-called gain-of-function pathogen research will likely receive closer scrutiny after three U.S. biolab incidents." Scientific American. Helen Branswell. July 14, 2014.
Dangerous seems hardly adequate to describe what's going on in the Kawaoka lab at UW-Madison.
Where are UW-Madison's bioethicists? Hunkered down no doubt.