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Medicine Science

Mutant Flu Researchers Declare a Time Out 224

New submitter scibri writes "Researchers working on highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza have said they will stop work on the virus for 60 days, to allow them to explain the importance of their work to politicians and the public. Quoting: 'Despite the positive public-health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release.'" Reader Harperdog sends in a related article arguing that we shouldn't be having a debate about the censorship of research, but rather a debate over whether the research should have been allowed in the first place.
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Mutant Flu Researchers Declare a Time Out

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  • by SJHillman ( 1966756 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @02:52PM (#38765252)

    Are they researchers for the mutant flu or are they flu researchers that are mutants? Or did the mutant flu make them mutants?

  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @02:55PM (#38765294) Journal

    And this is the way the new Dark Ages will begin. Not from where you'd expect, religious fundamentalists who are offended by the challenge reality presents to their mythology. But from easily-frightened handwringing "ethicists", who had they been around in the time of the caveman would have taken away Ugh's flint for fear he'd burn down the forest were he to succeed in starting a fire.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yeah, thats exactly right... tinkering with highly dangerous and highly contagious viruses is exactly the same as supressing all of science... Especially since we all know that outbreaks of viruses from such secure research facilities can never happen... Just a random search on ebola offers this.

      Not to say that it shouldn't be allowed, but the whole point is that this is not that simple an issue, that

    • Lets see.. forest fire vs
        50% of 7bil dead and a probable end of our ability to carry out commerce or have a technologically advanced civilzation for a few centuries. hmm... which one sounds like a more serious consequence to you?

      I don't care how professional, careful , trustworthy etc your group is sooner or later a mistake will be made or an accident beyond their control. Fire , earthquake, tornado, what do suppose it would take.

      • by m.ducharme ( 1082683 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:23PM (#38765844)

        One could argue that setting humanity back a few centuries and wiping out half the population would be good for the planet (and perhaps ultimately save the species). It's not an argument I'd be prepared to make, but it's one I'd take seriously, if someone else were to make it.

      • by geekoid ( 135745 )

        except we will know how to vaccinate and treat it.

        "I don't care how professional, careful , trustworthy etc your group is sooner or later a mistake will be made or an accident beyond their control."
        m sure your dim witted ancestors said the same thing about the wheel.

        And no, the difference between a pigs nose and a mans is not accidental. There are evolutionary pressure for why they are different.
        If you think that, then you don't understand evolution at all.

        Humans don't eat their own because it isn't real

    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:18PM (#38765744)

      In all fairness, Ugh really shouldn't be trusted with fire.

    • by DC2088 ( 2343764 )
      "Our biochem corpus is far in advance of theirs, as is our electronic sentience. And their...ethical inflexibility has allowed us to make progress in areas they refuse to consider. "
    • who had they been around in the time of the caveman would have taken away Ugh's flint for fear he'd burn down the forest were he to succeed in starting a fire.

      i'm sure the rest of the biosphere thinks that would have been a good move.

    • by siddesu ( 698447 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:54PM (#38766388)

      Nah, it isn't some mythical "ethicists" that are the problem. Two things are at work here that have shaped this kind of attitude.

      First, there is a gradual and seemingly purposeful dumbing down of public education, especially in the "civilized" world. When I was growing up, I had boring math and physics books with theorem proofs and many problems in them. These days my kids have pictures, diagrams, bold colors and boxes with all sorts of historical and "cultural" references, but what was standard hardness in my book is now "optional" or "advanced" and "can be skipped without loss of continuity". The situation is the same in every field that teaches science. Teachers are poor, undereducated and not interested in teaching. Kids are "spared" the "psychological shock" of failure that low grades imply. The situation in higher education somewhat similar, except at the very top, which is accessible to the very few -- who turn out to be the researchers.

      Science is hard and getting harder, and to make sense of it, you need to be taught about the basics. There is no time anymore to figure it out for yourself. No education == fertile supply of "luddites". Incidentally, this also means a fertile supply of "consumers".

      Second, there is the media world, which has totally gone down the drain in terms of quality. Serious journalism, where reasonably educated people would research a topic and write about it in articles long enough to cover the subject in some depth and breadth has devolved into idiots spewing out 150-200 word articles, or "blog posts" or "twits" of 140 chars or less. They make money by try to make a sensation out of everything. More and more people seriously believe that the Wikipedia article and the top hits on google on any topic give them the full picture. So, you are undereducated and fair and competent coverage, that is filtering out manipulative interests is almost inaccessible to you. How are you not going to become a "luddite" in some fashion or other?

      Add to this the growing disconnect between politics, where more and more things is internationally and behind closed doors, and you can understand why people distrust the "official" line more and more, and turn to "the fringe" -- all these movements that we here usually laugh at. Unlike the "official" coverage, the fringe is cozy, warm, easy to understand, and sounds plausible to most in the audience. You can find friends who think like you and join your own misinformation bubble, deepening the problem above and adding psychological support and motivation that further solidifies your "luddite" attitude.

      This is your recipe for the dark ages, and, sadly, it starts with your government screwing up the public education and your corporations converting journalism in a platform for sales enhancement.

      • Education has never been about the dumb kids. That's just where all the effort, money and discussion is focused. The world needs ditch diggers too.

        You can't stop the smart kids from learning. No matter how hard the average teacher tries. You have to understand just how dumb the average teacher is. They don't like the smart kids any more now then they did when they where in the grade they are teaching.

        The internet has shifted things for the smart self motivated kids. I wish we had it when I was in middl

        • by siddesu ( 698447 )

          This is a slightly misguided attitude. You cannot always stop a smart kid, but you can make his/her life a lot harder than necessary. Why?

          Also, the more educated your population is, the easier is for the society to advance, especially so in a democracy. If your voters are stupid, don't expect your politicians to be smart, or society to be a good place to raise smart kids.

    • by emilper ( 826945 )

      quoth one of the fine article: "investigators have proved that viruses possessing a haemagglutinin (HA) protein from highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza viruses can become transmissible in ferrets" ... translation: haemagglutinin are proteins found on the surface of the virus and which help them bind to the attacked cell; they managed to get some viruses to infect a mammal, not H5N1, but _other virus_ that have _one_ of the "attack proteins" in common with the H5N1 virus.

      So, how come that the H5N1 virus

    • by jd ( 1658 )

      Ludd did not argue against technology, he argued only that increased use of technology should not harm humans. It is industrialists who had no concern for consequence who muddied the waters. This is relevant because in this issue we have a very definite question of whether technology has the potential to harm humans and what the consequences could be.

      (As noted elsewhere, I side with the researchers that the potential for harm is negligible in comparison to the potential benefits of understanding why some fl

    • But from easily-frightened handwringing "ethicists", who had they been around in the time of the caveman would have taken away Ugh's flint for fear he'd burn down the forest were he to succeed in starting a fire.

      Yes, and they explored the ramifications of that and other technology in Caveman Science Fiction []!

  • I'm going to dream about an old woman in a cornfield on a porch soon, aren't I?
  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @02:59PM (#38765370)
    I knew those ferrets where up to something. They must be stopped!
  • I would rather.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Brannoncyll ( 894648 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:01PM (#38765432)
    ...have someone studying it now rather than having them start when its already too late. It can take months or years to create a vaccine, then more time to manufacture/distribute it to the public. By this time a large proportion of the world's population could be infected.
    • assuming whatever they made up in the lab was in someway close enough to the naturally evolved pathogen. of coarse how could anyone know what that even means.

      • Presumably sequencing the RNA (which is pretty quick these days I understand) along with some knowledge of the method by which the virus interfaces with the cells would allow the researchers to compare how similar the natural and lab varieties? I am not a biologist but I would think this kind of thing is pretty routine for things as simple as viruses.
        • yeah, but the point is , does anyone know the likelood that the similarities would be enough to be useful in creating a vaccine for the wild one?

    • by Aladrin ( 926209 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:48PM (#38766296)

      I dont think the argument is over whether it should be studied or not. After a little digging, the argument seems to be over the fact that they are studying it in Biosafety Level 3 facilities, instead of BSL4. As my post below states, BSL3 is for treatable diseases, and BSL4 is for untreatable ones. This one isn't, and should be in BSL4 according to those rules.

    • The issue with your statement is that there is no "it". Virus mutation can go in many different directions. If the researchers mutate a virus in one direction and come up with a vaccine that is great for that virus. If nature goes in a slightly different direction and mutates the virus in a different way the reasearch done is useless as the vaccine for the research virus will not work on the wild virus. Even if the research virus has a vaccine there is nothing to say that if the research virus ever escapes

  • 'But he thinks that the duration of the pause is too short. “The 60 days will likely not be adequate in terms of getting a truly workable international policy and applying that. I just don't think that's realistic,” he says. '

    Is it really too short, or are the parties involved not interested enough to put their time into resolving it quickly? Because if they aren't really interested in coming to a resolution, the scientists have just wasted 60 days of their lives for people who don't actually c

    • And I admit I don't know the difference between level 3 and level 4 facilities

      I'm a catastrophic movie lover and I can knowledgeably tell you that level 3 facilities only require you to have a face mask, glasses, gloves and being extra careful with your test tubes, whereas level 4 facilities involve a sci-fi-like separated building with an imposing airlock controlled by an handprint-operated electronic lock making cool noises, inside which scientists work in awesome-looking spacesuits!

      • Or we can just, you know, look it up []
      • Re:Too short? (Score:4, Informative)

        by Aladrin ( 926209 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:46PM (#38766262)

        lol If that's even remotely true, then I definitely want any pandemic-capable viruses worked on in level 4 labs.

        You inspired me to look it up. []

        "Biosafety level 3
        This level is applicable to clinical, diagnostic, teaching, research, or production facilities in which work is done with indigenous or exotic agents which may cause serious or potentially lethal disease after inhalation.[7] It includes various bacteria, parasites and viruses that can cause severe to fatal disease in humans but for which treatments exist, such as" ... blah blah blah. Key words, "treatments exist." []

        60% fatal, vaccine being developed. In other words, no treatments exist, and it's highly deadly.

        Yeah, let's go with BSL4, please.

        • lol If that's even remotely true, then I definitely want any pandemic-capable viruses worked on in level 4 labs.

          You inspired me to look it up..

          Hmph, methinks I should have added a joke tag...

  • by HockeyPuck ( 141947 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:02PM (#38765440)

    We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release.

    Why does this remind me of all the stories where some contractor walked out of a "secure $organization facility" with highly sensitive data/source code/credit_card numbers etc...?

    Should we be surprised when we read a story one day that says that some Chinese researcher walked out the door with a container of some highly contagious strain of Ferret Flu...

  • Would somebody please think of the poor terrorists? Everybody knows they are not smart enough to do this sort of research on their own. Without real scientists helping them create doomsday weapons like this one, how will they ever take over the world?

  • Sustainability (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    What they are working on is a way to create a sustainable world with a far smaller population. You can't just line people up against the wall and shoot them or poison them as the Nazis did but a global epidemic accidentally released from a laboratory will serve just as well and with a far smaller number of people that need to be held accountable.

  • 60 days (Score:5, Funny)

    by phrostie ( 121428 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:10PM (#38765572)

    and that should give us time to find that Damn ferret.

  • Hello, Ron A. M. Fouchier and 38 co-authors here. I want to assure everyone that our work on a highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza will have no


    hold a moment...

    we aren't feeling too well..

    can someone please #$%^

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:37PM (#38766098) Journal
    It seems like both right and left want to stop research in science depending on RELIGIOUS POVs. The evangelicals, want to stop genetic research, deny evolution as well as Global Warming. The left, with their own brand of religion, want to stop nuclear research and now this.

    it is hard to believe that America was at one time, the leading nation in science. Since the likes of reagan onwards, we have suffered over and over by both extremist on right and left wings.
  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Friday January 20, 2012 @03:41PM (#38766172)

    I see no reason for an experimental virus to be both highly contagious and deadly at the same time. Couldn't you learn the same thing from two viruses. One that was very contagious but not dangerous and another that was very deadly but not contagious?

    Why put the warhead in the missile if you don't intend to kill people? if you want to test the missile, put a dummy warhead in it. If you want to test the warhead, then detonate without the delivery mechanism.

    Viral researchers do this sort of thing all the time. They test contagious viruses with harmless strains to watch how they get into the body. Deadly strains are typically injected. They're not airborne.

    Maybe I don't understand what they're doing but the whole thing smells like a germ warfare lab if they're combining the two and trying to make them more deadly. That's a weaponization program.

    • The military are going to want something which is both easy to pass on and effective at taking out the enemy population.

    • Different situation here.

      Those researchers found that there is a virus that is hightly contagious and deadly. Also, this virus is likely* to be created at Nature, so it is interesting by itself. The researchers thus want to know how this specific virus behave, not some generic fast spreading or some generic lethal variation of it.

      * For suficiently unlikely values of "likely". It is likely enough to make people afraid, but just because the result will be a lethal pandemic. If it was something less damaging,

  • ... it's biotechnology as usual, only this time the public got to hear about it and now, being utterly ignorant of anything, they're in a panic.

  • Adult Supervision (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    It seems to me that these researchers need adult supervision. Forgetting about 'terrorism' for the moment, the consequences of a small mistake or small misunderstanding are far too large. They appear to be thinking like little children playing with cap guns than like adults working with technologies that could possibly lead to either another human population bottleneck or, indeed, extinction.

  • "We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release."
  • If it wasnt world war iii, numerous private 'defense' companies would be working on atom bomb by then, and be willing to contract with whichever nation was willing to buy from them. of course, atom bomb research ALSO would eventually enable nuclear power. ..........

    this kind of thing goes beyond atomic bomb. to effectively discharge an atomic bomb you need to go through numerous hurdles. to start a plague bomb, all you need is a working sample that is enough to infect 3-4 people in a crowded location.

  • ... Why are they not working on something that multiplies in just air alone and kills within minutes of contact?

    I mean if they are going to speculate on what nature might or not create, why don't they just go for the brass ring?

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel