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 justification for his most controversial work. 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 to understand 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 experimental genetic manipulation of the virus and justifies the very slight chance of the public being exposed to a much more dangerous strain of the already very dangerous virus.
The 1918 Spanish flu was the most deadly disease in human history.
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 of Kawaok's mutated more virulent versions were to somehow escape from the lab, the seriousness of the potential resulting pandemic are 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 high 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. Experts 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. [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.] For comparison, heart disease and cancer are each responsible for almost 600,000 deaths annually in the U.S.
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 experimental flu researchers.
3. Large financial benefits for the institutions hosting experimental flu researchers.
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. 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.