February 28, 2012 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

In Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man [1974], philosopher and ethicist Hans Jonas observed that "Interference with the freedom of research is a grave ethical matter by itself, yet it is like nothing against the gravity of the ethical issues posed by the eventual success of that research."

"Questions of use of science and technology are always moral and political questions, never simply technical ones." So said Leon Kass, former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, in "The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man's Estate?" [1971].

These timely commentaries should be used as the framework for upcoming decisions regarding whether to proceed with research that has the potential to end human life as we know it, specifically, research which has created an animal-to-animal model of transmission for H5N1, the avian influenza virus.

Ever since the Manhattan Project, scientific research has no longer been considered solely a knowledge-gathering, knowledge-creating activity. Doing science is no longer an exclusively beneficial activity. The results of scienctific research are no longer strictly intended for the good of humanity. Scientific methods and methodologies, previously neutral activities, neither good nor bad, can now be responsible for some very severe outcomes.

The advent of genetic engineering exponentially expanded the possibilities for benefits and harms of research. Of immediate concern is the case of a new configuration of the H5N1 virus, the pathogen responsible for recent outbreaks of avian flu. In its originally encountered nucleic acid sequence, H5N1 was able to infect humans who had frequent, prolonged contact with infected poultry and other birds. Late in 2011, researchers working at two sites, one in the Netherlands and the other at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, successfully adapted H5N1 so that it could be easily transmitted between ferrets via animal-to-animal contact. The strong possibility exists that the research methods employed could be further adapted to create an H5N1 virus with the capability of human-to-human transmission.

Such a result could have catastrophic consequences.

Some facts and expert opinions are in order. Over the past few years, approximately 600 people have been infected with H5N1 and more than half died. The 1918 flu epidemic had a death rate of 2%, killing almost 50 million people worldwide. With a potential kill rate of 50%, an H5N1 strain capable of airborne human-to-human spread would devastate the global population. Dr. Paul Keim, chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, recently stated "I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one." Dr. Ron Fouchier, team leader of the Netherlands group working on H5N1, said in November 2011 that his team was working on "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make". In "An Engineered Doomsday" (1/7/2012), the New York Times editorial board wrote "It looks like the research should never have been undertaken because the potential harm is so catastrophic and the potential benefits from studying the virus so speculative."

The editorial points to a prime ethical question: whether such research should have been conducted at all. In times past, when technology's potential to hasten the apocalypse was lesser than at present by several orders of magnitude, the resounding response would have been "yes, assuredly". Science was always done in the public interest. The goal of science, stated broadly, is to inquire into the workings of the universe. Previously, the widely varying activities known as science were always directed toward the good of humanity. This stopped being the case when the Nazis rose to power in Germany. The criminal actions masquerading as "science" were uncovered by the victorious Allies and the Nuremberg code was the immediate result. But the need for such a code was not generally perceived prior to the Nazi atrocities.

It's very possible that we have arrived at a time in humankind's history when another type of code of conduct is required. Researchers around the world are recognizing that an ominous threshold has been crossed. Science and Nature are delaying publication of the H5N1 research in question. Thirty-nine influenza researchers signed a letter declaring a voluntary two-month suspension of H5N1 research. The moratorium will provide a space in which ways forward will be explored. Suggestions include systems of prior review, mechanism of expert oversight, and use of Biosafety Level 4 labs.

But the core question may never be resolved, i.e., how do we determine where to draw the line? In other words, should we go ahead and do a thing, just because we can?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

1 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy , Bioethics in the Media , Ethics and Morality , Health Care Policy , Research Methods



LEP wrote on 02/28/12 11:19 PM

Basic training in ethics is now in order for scientists of every stripe.

Learning to apply even simple apothegms - such as, "What would happen if everyone did what I'm thinking of doing?" - might have allowed a fruitful "pause" BEFORE the genetic alteration occurred.

Thank you for your timely commentary!

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.