science | January 04, 2012

The New York Times Interviews Laurie Garrett: What to Do About Man-Made Bird-Flu?

In a New York Times interview, Laurie Garrett discusses the ethics behind the recent scientific creation of a form of the bird flu virus, and whether or not the findings should be published. As the only person to win the three "P's" of journalism—the Pulitzer, the Polk and the Peabody—Garett is one of America's most respected voices on infectious disease and prevention. The ethical questions that surround lab-created diseases are complex, the Times writes. Should information about their creation be censored for fear that it "could be used by terrorists"? Or, does publishing these findings help governments and protection agencies stay informed about the potential dangers of a new wave of bio-weapons? While Garrett explains that the rapid development of microbiology is something to be concerned about (see her Foreign Policy article "The Bioterrorist Next Door"), the real issue is that current policy is so far behind the curve that we don't even have the framework to deal with the present, much less the future:

The speed and cheapness of deciphering microbes has spawned what’s known as the synthetic biology movement. So-called life hackers are now swapping genes for diseases in and out of hundreds of species of microbes. Nothing currently written into law, treaties or scientific codes of ethical behavior anticipated the synthetic biology revolution...Disease surveillance requires a constellation of factors operating together: physicians spotting suspicious cases; blood and tissue samples collected promptly and properly and sent to well-equipped laboratories for analysis; trained disease detectives who know how to enter poor, remote areas and track flu’s spread. Here in the United States, we have often failed to pull that constellation together in a timely fashion.

Discussing the ethics behind individual cases in an ad hoc fashion is an inefficient and ultimately hopeless way of tackling a much larger issue. Only through a multilateral global bio-weapons treaty and a complete overhaul of domestic bio-ethics standards can we stop debating on a case-by-case basis, and start looking at the bigger picture. Biotechnology is moving much faster than our institutions, Garrett reminds us. It's time we caught up.

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sustainability | January 03, 2012