Thursday, August 14, 2014 Making Viruses Deadlier – An Accident Waiting To Happen


The Doomsday Clock from


# 8952



The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – founded by former Manhattan Project scientists after the end of WWII -  covers a variety of global security issues ranging from nuclear technology, to climate change, to new emerging technologies.


It is perhaps best known for its Doomsday Clock, which represents how close they believe we are to seeing a technologically induced disaster.


Currently that clock sits at 5 minutes to Midnight, having made its closest approach in 1953 (2 minutes to midnight) after the US and the Soviet Union had both tested thermonuclear devices in the same year and its furthest in 1991 (17 minutes) after the signing of the START treaty and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

The Doomsday clock has sat at its present position since 2012.


While the risks from nuclear threats may seem lower today than during the 1980s when the Doomsday clock last sat at 5 Minutes till Midnight, other threats – including climate change, emerging biotechnologies, and cybertechnologies are now part of the doomsday equation.


One of the topics we’ve seen hotly debated over the past several years has centered around  the wisdom and safety of creating new and/or enhanced viruses in the laboratory.  Areas of research commonly called either  `Gain of Function’ (GOF) or DURC (Dual Use Research of Concern).


While scientists engaged in this type of work insist that the risks are negligible (see Scientists For Science: GOF Research `Essential’ & Can be Done `Safely’) and are resisting additional additional oversight and regulation, many others (see Updating The Cambridge Working Group) are not convinced.


Yesterday the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published a long analysis/opinion piece (see link below) warning of the perils of this type of research on potentially deadly viruses.  It’s a long read, but very much worth the time.

When you return, I’ll have a bit more:



08/13/2014 - 21:42

Making viruses in the lab deadlier and more able to spread: an accident waiting to happen

Tatyana Novossiolova Malcolm Dando


Although a number of biosafety experts have warned about the risks of these types of experiments for several years - since the revelations of several serious lapses in biosafety at CDC and FDA labs this summer involving anthrax, smallpox, and H5N1 avian flu - we are seeing a growing chorus of concerned voices.


A few recent examples include:


mBio: The Risks & Benefits Of `GOF’ Experimentation On Pathogens With Pandemic Potential

The Laboratory Bio-Safety Backlash Continues

ECDC Comment On Gain Of Function Research

The Journal Nature Weighs In On Lab Accidents & Biosafety

Lipsitch & Galvani: GOF Research Concerns



Sixty years ago, during the height of the cold war, the scientific debate of that age was over the safety and wisdom of continuing to conduct above-ground  thermonuclear detonations.  


Between 1945 and 1962, hundreds of atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted by the United States, The Soviet Union, France, and the UK, releasing significant quantities of radioactive isotopes into the environment - including (americium-241, cesium-137, iodine-131, strontium-90).

While many scientists and government officials of the day claimed these tests were both safe and necessary for national security, it became apparent by the mid-1950s that the dangers had been downplayed. 


Strontium-90 - which acts much like calcium in the human body -  was of great concern as it ended up deposited in bones and teeth of small children, raising serious concerns over future cancer risks.


But it would not be until 1963 when the world came to its collective senses and a global nuclear test ban treaty would be adopted, limiting all testing to underground.


The debate then over atomic testing - like the debate today over `life sciences’ and GOF work - and the debate we will soon need to have over Artificial Intelligence and nanotechnologies, pits the tantalizing promise of scientific discovery against the sobering reality that emerging technologies can often be a double-edged sword.


While some researchers may resist the idea and call it scientific censorship, the time has come to have a thorough and public debate over the risks and benefits of Gain of Function research.   


Faith in science and scientists has eroded badly over the past 50 years (see Science At The Crossroads).  Public skepticisms over climate change, the safety of GMO foods and vaccines, or nuclear power are only rising with each passing year.


While some of this erosion of trust can be traced to tabloid journalism and conspiracy websites, some of it has been well earned ( see When Scientists Behave Badly & Dysfunctional Science).  


With the world facing a growing list of threats – both natural and man made – we need to restore the public’s faith both in science, and its scientists.   But for that to happen, we need its representatives to do more than to wave their hands and say:


`Trust us . . . we’re scientists’.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"While scientists engaged in this type of work insist that the risks are negligible (see Scientists For Science: GOF Research `Essential’ & Can be Done `Safely’) and are resisting additional additional oversight and regulation, many others (see Updating The Cambridge Working Group) are not convinced."

Personally I don't think that the quote from your blog reflects the Scientists for Science statement in the slightest. I don't think that scientists would say the risks are "negligible", but rather that there are rules and regulations in place to respond to the risks in a adequate way. I also don't think that these guys "resist" additional regulations. I rather think that regulations are, as it always is in science, something that moves on, and when there are new circumstances then it is time for a change. However, there are already many regulations in place that do not only try to keep the public safe, but don't forget that the scientists working with the pathogens day in, day out are most at risk and I would bet with you they don't want to get infected or ill in the first place. Thus conducting the experiments in the safest possible way is definitely in their own interest!