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Threatened Pandemics and Laboratory Escapes: Self-fulfilling Prophecies 94

Posted by timothy
from the here-sniff-this-tube dept.
Lasrick (2629253) writes "Martin Furmanski, a medical doctor and medical historian, writes of the laboratory escapes of high-consequence pathogens that have occurred in recent decades (including several instances of smallpox!). The article explores 'gain of function" experiments-- experiments in which researchers manipulate dangerous pathogens to increase communicability among humans, and whether the benefit we see from those experiments outweighs the incredible risk. 'Many other laboratory escapes of high-consequence pathogens have occurred, resulting in transmission beyond laboratory personnel. Ironically, these laboratories were working with pathogens to prevent the very outbreaks they ultimately caused. For that reason, the tragic consequences have been called "self-fulfilling prophecies.''"
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Threatened Pandemics and Laboratory Escapes: Self-fulfilling Prophecies

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  • by Warbothong (905464) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 @12:26PM (#46631209) Homepage

    Bruce Willis agrees.

    • This can be summed up briefly:

      Murphy's Law.

    • â¦to the good old April Fools day stories on Slashdot.

      I used to look forward annually to see what would come outâ¦why did they do away with it?

      :)

      Seriously, one day of OMG Poniesâ¦was fun and funny.

      RIP April Fools on Slashdot.

      • by Lotana (842533)

        RIP April Fools on Slashdot.

        Good riddance. Internet turns useless on that particular day.

  • Better Idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by maz2331 (1104901) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 @12:28PM (#46631221)

    Wouldn't it make more sense to locate these labs in an incredibly isolated area like an island in the middle of the ocean or the Moon? Someplace that CAN be quarantined 100% in the event of a mishap?

    • Re:Better Idea (Score:5, Insightful)

      by RobinH (124750) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 @12:33PM (#46631257) Homepage
      I don't think you'll have a lot of top-notch research scientists applying for those jobs. Just like it's hard to attract doctors to rural areas, it's hard to attract the majority of people away from population centers, especially if you're looking for the best and brightest.
      • Re:Better Idea (Score:5, Interesting)

        by neilo_1701D (2765337) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 @12:44PM (#46631389)

        As a counterpoint to this argument, consider the X-Planes of the 50's and 60's; these were all done precisely that way: by attracting the best and brightest to remote locations, cut off from population centers and given a remit to do the best they could. Think the Bell-X1, for example, or Lookheed's A-12 (which became the SR-71).

        • As a counterpoint to this argument, consider the X-Planes of the 50's and 60's; these were all done precisely that way: by attracting the best and brightest to remote locations, cut off from population centers and given a remit to do the best they could. Think the Bell-X1, for example, or Lookheed's A-12 (which became the SR-71).

          Many of the people involved were in the military and had no say in where they were posted. Qualified employees of military hardware contractors would also be hard pressed to refuse a job on a top secret project... and if they did it's a small pool of people and word gets around if you are not a team player. If you are a bad fit at Lockheed then GD, Hughes, Northrop, Raytheon, et al., would also question your viability. In the end I doubt many people had to be "attracted", they were just sent.

      • by CastrTroy (595695)
        Why not use robotics to work with the samples remotely? Put a laboratory in a remote place, heavily guarded, but don't require scientists to be physically present to do their work. This is probably the only way something like this could make sense on the moon. But then again, the transmission time to the moon, could make robotics tricky if you required real time control.
      • There are a lot of research labs in more out of the way locations. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for example, isn't exactly close to any fun cities. It's in the Knoxville area, but separate, and Knoxville isn't exactly a great draw.
      • by geekoid (135745)

        You don't want the best and brightest. You want the best and brightest who are driven enough by their passion to move to BFE.

    • An island is hardly isolated; something airborne could possibly make it to land or be carried by migratory birds.

      The moon is an interesting idea; however consider the consequences of a rocket explosion during takeoff. Or, even more horrifying, consider the consequence of rocket failure and the payload crashing on to a populated area.

      • by dbIII (701233)
        One example was an experimental rabbit eradication virus on an island 2km off the coast of Australia. It escaped to the mainland so instead of a systematic eradication of feral rabbits it was a normal epidemic. The survivors and descendants are now resistant to that virus and rabbit numbers have recovered.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      They tried that with the Plum Island Animal Disease Center -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plum_Island_Animal_Disease_Center

      • Plum Island is hardly isolated. It is located in Long Island Sound (more like a large lake than open ocean) between Long Island NY and the CT coastline. Plum Island is home for a lot of seabirds, which would be one easy vector to transport disease to the mainland. There are migratory seals in the area in the winter, though I'm not sure if they go to Plum Island specifically.
        • by AK Marc (707885)
          It's close enough that it's suspected deer swim to it from CT, but remote enough that it has issues in storms. And it isn't protected inside the long island sound, but is at the tip of long island, getting worse and more open-ocean weather than the sound would provide. If "isolated" means "scientists working there have neighbors who work in NYC" then yes, it's isolated. About as "isolated" from major population centers as if it were on Ellis or Liberty islands.
          • Storms. Yes - this. Definitely sees occasional storm surge tides and hurricanes. Support issues notwithstanding, Antarctica would seem to make more sense. Possibly deep underground in the middle of a large desert might make more sense too.
    • The problem is that these viruses are designed to get around things like this. A researcher becomes infected and no one necessarily knows for 3 weeks. Assuming these researchers are allowed to come home from the moon ever, there is still a risk.

      And in the case it ever escapes simply into the quarantined lab, you have to assume that these infected scientists are entirely capable or panicking and breaking quarantine. When you are talking about deadly viruses, capable of destroying civilization, you have to as

      • by dbIII (701233)

        A researcher becomes infected and no one necessarily knows for 3 weeks

        Or years in the case of someone I know that got tuberculosis in a lab. However she wasn't working directly with it and doctors could not recognise it until she was examined by a retired doctor who happened to have TB experience.

    • Re:Better Idea (Score:4, Informative)

      by interkin3tic (1469267) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 @12:52PM (#46631455)
      Well, if you want all possible funds going towards logistical problems rather than actual research on the intended subject area, sure, we could try that. I'll note that nothing is 100% sure: in the middle of the ocean, you could still have people stealing pathogens and releasing them for terrorism.

      BSL4 labs are no joke already. We already spend a lot on the BSL4 facilities themselves, 1.2 billion in 2003 for example. [hpac.com] The safety measures inside are considerable:

      When dealing with biological hazards at this level the use of a positive pressure personnel suit, with a segregated air supply, is mandatory. The entrance and exit of a level four biolab will contain multiple showers, a vacuum room, an ultraviolet light room, and other safety precautions designed to destroy all traces of the biohazard. Multiple airlocks are employed and are electronically secured to prevent both doors opening at the same time. All air and water service going to and coming from a biosafety level 4 (or P4) lab will undergo similar decontamination procedures to eliminate the possibility of an accidental release.

      wiki [wikipedia.org]

      Diseases that are out there in the wild, it seems stupid to suggest there's more of a risk from studying it than dealing with it if it happens. Smallpox, which has been eliminated in the wild and that we have a vaccine for, you could definitely make the case, however there would still be smallpox sources out there. [usatoday.com], it could re-emerge. There is no antiviral drug approved for smallpox. [wikipedia.org] If we get wind that someone is making a smallpox bomb, or if it re-emerges naturally, we'd probably want to start testing cidofovir or some other drugs ASAP. And sticking all our labs dealing with it in the middle of the ocean is a good way to make sure that's as slow as possible.

      • by AK Marc (707885)

        Multiple airlocks are employed and are electronically secured to prevent both doors opening at the same time.

        And when these labs, often remote, have power failures, how do the doors lock? They don't. They are Fukishima safe - "we'll never lose mains power at the same time as the generators being out". Though it has happened at BSL4 labs before.

        All air and water service going to and coming from a biosafety level 4 (or P4) lab will undergo similar decontamination procedures to eliminate the possibility of an accidental release.

        Until they violate standards because the amount of water going in and out can't be handles when one of the many devices in the chain of cleaning is out. Yes, that's happened before too.

        Standards are great, but as anyone in computers knows, having standards doesn't mean

        • by cusco (717999)

          I've set up a BSL4 lab, the door strikes are supposed to be Fail Secure, so that when power to the strike fails the door stays locked. Power needs to be supplied to the strike to unlock it. They require a waiver from the local fire marshal before installation, since there is no escape in the case of a fire that causes a loss of power. You're thinking of Fail Safe doors that unlock when the power fails, they are required for most stairwells and exits.

        • And when these labs, often remote, have power failures, how do the doors lock? They don't.

          Are you saying this based on some source or are you just assuming there's no contingency plans because the wikipedia page I linked to doesn't specifically mention them? You appear to be arguing the plan as summarized by wikipedia is inadequate. Definitely. That's why it's not used as the standard (hopefully.)

          Standards are great, but as anyone in computers knows, having standards doesn't mean adherence to them. You only need to meet them once every audit. And if the lab is government, the inspectors and lab are funded by the same group, so there''s a conflict of interest. What could possibly go wrong?

          So, what is the alternative exactly? Shut it down because something MIGHT go wrong despite all odds? Have a non-government organization either audit or run the labs?

        • by Megol (3135005)
          You are just wrong. Do you know of any class 4 labs that have any failure? The one I know of is placed where there can be no earthquakes, there can be no flooding, there are at least two power backups (batteries + generator). IIRC it also had a layered construction so that any improbable leak from the solid concrete "bunker" will not contaminate ground water. Oh yeah, it is also placed under ground with several security checks required to enter.

          BTW I've been in another high security bunker when power faile

          • by AK Marc (707885)

            Do you know of any class 4 labs that have any failure?

            If there was, would they be allowed to talk about it?

            I've read lots of the conspiracy theories, and they say so. It's not like a hermetic seal is in place, otherwise, why would they be so anal about making sure they are negative pressure facilities? So if the power fails, at least one of the "security measures" is compromised. And no, I've not been in one. They don't allow tours.

            • "why would they be so anal about making sure they are negative pressure facilities?"
              Can you really not be able to think of a reason?

      • Yes, we have a smallpox vaccine. However, it's efficacy is dubious against a weaponized form of smallpox. I'll refer you to the book "The Demon In The Freezer." Towards the end, the author points to real research and publicly accessible information on how to make smallpox effective even against immunized individuals. It's apparently so easy, the author did it on a different pox virus in a lab.

        That book scared the living crap out of me.
        • by cusco (717999)

          Check out the book 'Germs' by Judith Miller and others, written in the 1990s. The only book that I have ever read that gave me nightmares. A few years after it was published it was discovered that when Clinton ordered the military to stop all research into creating new bio-weapons the Pentagon ignored their Commander-In-Chief and simply changed the development program names and moved them to the Black Budget. Didn't even move the techs desks.

    • . . . and I was thinking that it would be best to put these labs right in the middle of where the anti-vaccination crowds live . . .

    • I think this place may be adequate:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atacama_Desert [wikipedia.org]

      Nothing survives there. In 200 million years, no form of bacteria has been able to evolve to survive in the conditions there. You'd have to use pressurized buildings and carefully controlled climate though.

      • by cusco (717999)

        Keep in mind the earthquakes in the area, a couple of which exceeded 8 on the Richter scale in the last few years . . .

        • It is possible to build a building that will survive even a 9.5 on the Richter Scale.

          The point is more, can you situate your lab in a place where even if the microbes escape, they can't survive on their own? The arid nature of the higher points of this desert, in combination with the significantly low pressure atmosphere, make even survival for humans slightly doubtful in places.

          • by cusco (717999)

            The Atacama is a weird place. Other deserts have cacti and bugs and such. The Atacama has nothing. The only sign of life is an occasional mummified sea bird laying on the surface, with no indication whether it died a month ago or a century ago. Rock fragments that split and fall off lay in a corona around the parent because they never wash away in the rain. There is a slight crust on the top of the sand, like a snow crust, since the sand particles have lain together undisturbed for so long they've bond

    • by cusco (717999)

      The Soviets located their hottest bio-weapons lab on an island in the Aral Sea. Unfortunately now that the Aral Sea is drying up it's no longer an island . . .

    • All these comments and no Madagascar jokes?
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W... [wikipedia.org] (not incredibly isolated but sometimes i post links as they might be of interest to the prev poster).
    • by Fnord666 (889225)

      Wouldn't it make more sense to locate these labs in an incredibly isolated area like an island in the middle of the ocean or the Moon? Someplace that CAN be quarantined 100% in the event of a mishap?

      Maybe you could put it near the arctic circle and name it Arctic Biosystems.

  • Captain Trips!! (Score:4, Informative)

    by neilo_1701D (2765337) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 @12:35PM (#46631281)

    This was the basis for a Stephen King story in 1978, "The Stand".

    Also "The Hot Zone" was a non-fictional account of an Ebola outbreak from a lab.

    • by Matheus (586080)

      Don't forget about the Andromeda Strain! (1969)

      • I think Frank Herbert's The White Plague [wikipedia.org] (1982) is more likely.
      • by geekoid (135745)

        Yep. That book came directly out of the program NASA set up to stop any possible contamination from a moon visit.
        With time we realized it wasn't needed.
        I think the movie is better than the book, BTW.

        • by dbIII (701233)
          A chilling bit of fantasy but I'm sure something more realistic from a better writer would have been more interesting (and less easily dismissed as fantasy).
          Doctors with nukes FFS!

          I think the movie is better than the book

          I agree, it was tidied up a bit and less silly.

    • This was the basis for a Stephen King story in 1978, "The Stand".

      Been a while since I read that one - did he actually go into detail about the origin of the plague, or just leave it at "plague killed most everyone?"

      Considering the source, I wouldn't be surprised if he described not only the origin of the plague, but it's shape, texture, coloration, as well as the design of the lab it escaped from, the type of lighting there, what sort of fabric the scientists wore...

      • It was a US army base developing a weaponized superflu. From memory, the superflu was more a McGuffin than anything important... it was the cause of societal breakdown that allowed The Devil to come to earth.

        However, the characters did have a discussion about what would happen if any of the survivors accidentally opened another one of those labs.

    • "The Andromeda Strain" was about containing one that got harvested, but poorly.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecies cause the events they predict. Saying "Labs will release viruses!" doesn't seem to cause the virus releases in any way I can see. If anything, it makes the controls more stringent.
    • by TheCarp (96830)

      Ahhh but it isn't just "labs will release viruses" but that labs particularly worried about really nasty viruses, will create them in order to study the possibility, leading to the very outbreaks they were created to study in hopes of avoiding.

      Its not just labs working on viruses, but people being so worried about labs creating plagues that they create labs that create plagues as a result.

  • Wouldn't want these folks making a pinky swear when a petri dish of genetically modified super-virus goes missing after they crossed Ebola with the common cold.

  • Is the auto playing accessibility feature for the visually impaired the April fools joke?
    • by antdude (79039)

      Yeah, it was annoying. Also, it was HTML5 media player so it wasn't blocked like Flashblock, Mozilla's addon on demand player, etc.

    • by Bigbutt (65939)

      Yea, my volume is now off on my laptop. Where's the checkbox to disable it?

      [John]

  • by GoodNewsJimDotCom (2244874) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 @02:15PM (#46632045)
    Don't link audio in the comments.
  • I remember hearing about a Lvl 4 containment site getting concreted with people inside of it.

    I can't lay claim to it but i do believe it.

    • by cusco (717999)

      My understanding is that is a contingency plan, but has never been implemented. A couple of the military bio-weapons labs had pre-installed demolitions charges that would implode the entire underground site into a hole covered by a clay hill, but again they were never set off.

      Something that I've always found interesting is that several military-tied medical institutes, such as Battelle and Litton Bionetics, have "cancer research centers" in central Africa.

    • I remember hearing about a Lvl 4 containment site getting concreted with people inside of it.

      This is an urban legend often associated with Building 470 [wikipedia.org], a facility at Fort Detrick used to culture large (like, thousands-of-gallons large) quantities of biological weapons, including anthrax. Building 470 was decommissioned in 1971, and demolished in 2003; there were no dead bodies sealed in the walls, and demolition workers were more concerned about exposure to asbestos and lead paint used in the 1953 structure.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      I remember hearing the they contracted Bigfoot to do the work, but he contracted out to the Grays.

    • Is this a "in Soviet Russia" thing? If so, at some times it would have been entirely believable even if there was no loss of containment but just a wish to get rid of inconvenient witnesses to something.
  • So what you're saying is... if we just bury our head in the sand and just ignore these diseases, no one will ever get sick from them. Wow.... whoud'a thunk that'd werk!
  • There are far more releases than is acknowledged. FAR MORE. Look at ebola and see the 2 lab accidents in Russia. Lots of work going on in weaponizing various bugs.
    We desperately need to find an island in the middle of the pacific, or even in the Antarctica, and put up a facility there, with another facility where ppl shuffle off to for up to 2 months after leaving the primary facility. But it should be like the ISS and have multiple nations that work there with ppl going in for 3 or 6 month rotations.
  • Startalk - Cosmic Queries with Laurie Garrett

  • A woman that was working in a lab that had a drug resistant strain of tuberculosis (among other things) was sick and undiagnosed for several years, until her doctor was absent and an older doctor came out of retirement to fill in. The older doctor recognised TB from back when he was first starting out. The victim was not supposed to be in contact with it, which is why TB was not suspected (or even mentioned to medical specialists), but it must not have been kept contained in the areas where it was suppose
  • I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit; It's the only way to be sure.........

Truly simple systems... require infinite testing. -- Norman Augustine

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