Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Scientists aren’t always the best people to evaluate the risks of scientific research

Written by Simon Beard, Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge

How can we study the pathogens that will be responsible for future global pandemics before they have happened? One way is to find likely candidates currently in the wild and genetically engineer them so that they gain the traits that will be necessary for them to cause a global pandemic.

Such ‘Gain of Function’ research that produces ‘Potential Pandemic Pathogens’ (GOF-PPP for short) is highly controversial. Following some initial trails looking at what kinds of mutations were needed to make avian influenza transmissible in ferrets, a moratorium has been imposed on further research whilst the risks and benefits associated with it are investigated.

The group Scientists for Science argues that such caution is not necessary and that it is damaging the progress of vital research into infectious diseases. They also point out that “The results of such research are often unanticipated and accrue over time” making the analysis of risks and benefits “difficult to assess accurately.”

This is no understatement. So far two assessments of the risks associated with GOF-PPP research have been produced. They give a range of estimates for the probability of a pandemic resulting from accidental release of engineered pathogens from a laboratory between 1 in 1,000 (Lipsitch and Inglesby 2014) and 1 in 33,000,000,000 (Fouchier 2015) per laboratory year.

Despite this, our natural tendency towards precaution regarding this research may be damaging. One recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the expected costs associated with global influenza, at around 0.7% of global income, are comparable with the long-term costs of climate change.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.