Onlangs werd een moratorium ingesteld voor onderzoek naar het Vogelgriepvirus. Ontwikkelingen in de wetenschap vragen echter om een krachtiger aanpak. Dat vindt onderzoeker Keelie Murdock.
Early this year, 39 of the world’s leading virologists signed a 60 day moratorium on experiments involving the avian influenza virus. Now, eight months later, scientists, public health experts and their contemporaries are considering the conditions under which the research should be permitted to continue. However, the discussions are neglecting important questions and issues that warrant reflection, in particular about the public dissent, the political ramifications of lifting the moratorium and the possibility for stronger regulations and international sanctions. The moratorium is a weak form of self-governance, implemented by an elite group of scientists. It is a testament to the integrity of the community but concerns a very limited range of experiments within the scope of a much larger problem, namely that of emerging technologies and scientific methods with dangerous implications and applications. If we don’t err on the side of caution, an unhindered faith in scientific progress could lead us in the wrong direction.
Waiting for the Endgame?
The moratorium was intended to buy time and space for public discussion and for organizational and government actors to deliberate on the issues of biosafety and biosecurity. In a special issue of the journal of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), Virologists Ron Fouchier, Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Adolfo Garcia-Sastre claim that progress in these areas has been sufficient and the research should be permitted to continue in laboratories with the appropriate facilities. Their argument however equates their explanation of the benefits with public understanding and acceptance and assumes that regulations for scientific oversight in a few nations and prospective biosafety and biosecurity guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO) are enough to justify this decision.
Other scientists and public health experts have come forward with their concerns about lifting the moratorium too soon. Several contributors to the special issue indicate that that they think the scientists should wait at least until the rest of the community is ready and improvements have been made in the area of biosafety and biosecurity containment. Containment however is a strategy for managing risks by increasing the level or control and maximizing the potential benefits. While their recommendations certainly have value, a reliance on containment begs the question of whether or not scientists should pursue this research and who should be responsible for this decision. Moreover, the regulations and guidelines will not necessarily be applied or enforced in the nations or environments which present the greatest threat of accidents and the intentional dissemination of the virus.
Anthony Fauci, of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) does not believe that the decision to move forward should be made exclusively by the US or by the scientific community but together with a broader set of actors. To these ends, he indicates that the issue of the moratorium will be considered at a forthcoming international workshop hosted by the US government. Scientists and public health experts may be in the best position to evaluate the scientific evidence and come to a consensus on risk-benefit calculations but their perspective on the problem is inevitably biased towards the pursuit of research and public health preparedness. Similarly, nations are inclined to protect commercial interests and foster innovation. However, this forum, despite the inclusion of other stakeholders may not appropriate for the development of effective solutions.
The international dimension to this debate is politically sensitive. The experiments in question can be used to develop biological weapons. Therefore research conducted in this area can stimulate suspicions between nations and potentially fuel an arms race. There is no verification regime akin to those for nuclear energy and chemistry to oversee research that may be considered contrary to peaceful development and build confidence in the intentions behind state programs. Therefore international discussions should provide the opportunity for all the relevant stakeholders including the public, ethicists and social and political scientists to make judgments and impose restrictions if deemed necessary and this should lead to an international agreement that facilitates transparency.
Public Participation and Preventative Action
The moratorium on avian influenza experiments has been widely compared to the moratorium adopted in 1974 at the Asilomar conference. The decision to halt experiments involving recombinant DNA technology has been heralded as a benchmark in scientific responsibility and self-regulation. However, there are also other similarities worthy of comparison, namely that the moratorium was lifted in favour of minimal guidelines despite public anxieties and extensive outside criticism. The historical record thus includes stories of ideological battles sought by scientists to resist opposition, national self-interest and a consequent deterioration of public trust and confidence in science and the state. A failure to enable full participation in decision-making and consider preventative mechanisms and precautionary restrictions could have similar implications. Moreover, the current pace of developments in biotechnology and synthetic biology and the deficit of preventative mechanisms threaten the health and welfare of the global population and of future generations.
Keelie Murdock is onderzoeker bij het Rathenau Instituut. Ze houdt zich onder andere bezig met biosecurity.