Infectious disease research: what’s allowed?

Keeping deadly viruses secure in the lab – should they be destroyed? Read through the background information and decide what you think

In 1918, ‘Spanish flu’ emerged, killing millions of people. In 2014, scientists aiming to understand the public health risk of modern bird flu viruses introduced mutations into one to make it more similar to the 1918 strain. They published the results of their research in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, showing that the modified strain was more deadly to mice and ferrets than currently circulating wild strains. According to their study, however, the new strain was not that dissimilar to the circulating strains. Some scientists criticised the work as being irresponsible.

Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, but there are still stocks held at two sites across the world. In 2014, the World Health Organization was debating whether to destroy these last remaining stocks of the virus. Some scientists believe further samples of the virus remain undeclared and that the potential for misuse by rogue organisations exists. There are, however, unapproved anti-smallpox drugs, which could be used in the case of a bioterrorist attack.

Pros of destroying smallpox stocks

  • No chance of an accidental release of the smallpox virus.
  • No chance of the live virus falling into the hands of terrorists or criminals.

Cons of destroying smallpox stocks

  • Excludes the possibility of learning from historical pathogens in the future, using techniques that haven’t been developed yet.
  • Some scientists argue that we would be less prepared for bioterrorist attacks.

Discuss

  1. Should scientists be allowed to manipulate dangerous pathogens in the lab?
  2. If research is allowed to continue, should the results be made public?
  3. Should the known smallpox stocks be destroyed?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Immune System’ in January 2015.

Topics:
Health, infection and disease, Medicine, Immunology
Issue:
Immune System
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development