Managing Risks That Endanger Health

The risks of a man-made pandemic are simply unacceptable.
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In the lead-off editorial of this week's Science, Nobel Laureate Paul Berg drew new attention to the importance of minimizing the likelihood of accidental or malicious release of dangerous pathogens from high biosafety level laboratories, citing our article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to point out, "[R]ecent calculations suggest that in research with highly transmissible and virulent biological agents, accidental release remains of great concern."

Berg was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980 for "his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, with particular regard to recombinant DNA" learning how to "introduce and maintain new genetic information in a variety of mammalian cells" and promising enormous potential benefit to humankind. But he and other early visionaries knew that powerful new pathogens, products of recombinant DNA, could do enormous damage to human health if accidentally released into the environment, leading Berg and others to organize the Asilomar Conference in recombinant DNA in 1975.

Later, deliberate misuse of such beneficial research for malevolent purposes -- "the dual-use conundrum," as the editorial is titled -- took center stage, most recently focusing on investigations tinkering with the nefarious H5N1 avian flu virus to study how contagious among people it might become.

"Throughout the [avian flu] debate," Berg writes, "far less attention was given to the probabilities of inadvertent release of the modified viral strands and the consequences for susceptible human populations."

That was our overriding concern in warning of the dangers of continued, unregulated research into SARS, one of the scariest viruses to emerge in decades, and into other potential pandemic pathogens, or PPPs: those which are extremely deadly, which are or potentially could be highly contagious, and which are not now found in human populations.

In its single natural outbreak from 2002-2003, SARS killed a stunning 9.6 percent of its victims -- almost four times higher than the horrific 1918 flu -- before vanishing into its natural background. It remains alive and well and proliferating in dozens of research laboratories around the world, as we've written, where work aims to develop countermeasures against a new outbreak.

However, one of us (Lynn Klotz) calculated the probabilities to which Berg referred: With only 42 labs studying PPPs, there is an 80% chance a PPP will accidentally escape from at least one lab in a mere 12.8 years, an interval far shorter than those between natural flu pandemics in the 20th century. We can only re-iterate the urgent message from which our Bulletin article's title derives. The risks of a man-made pandemic are simply unacceptable.

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