Category Archives: Bioethics

National Security and Bioethics: A Reading List

Forty-two years ago, in July 1972, the Tuskegee syphilis study was reported in the Washington Star and New York Times. Yesterday, a twitter chat hosted by TheDarkSci/National Science and Technology News Service, featuring Professors Ruha Benjamin and Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, discussed bioethics and lingering concerns about medical mistrust in the African-American Community. It was an excellent event, and you can read back through it here.[1]

Late in the chat, Marissa Evans expressed a desire to know some more about bioethics and bioterror, and I offered to post some links to engaging books on the topic.

The big problem is that there aren’t that many books that specifically deal with bioterrorism and bioethics. There are a lot of amazing books in peace studies, political science, international relations, history, and sociology on bioterorism. Insofar as these fields intersect with—and do—bioethics, they are excellent things to read. But a bioethics-specific, bioterror-centric book is a lot rarer.

As such, the readings provided are those that ground the reader in issues that are important to understanding bioterrorism from a bioethical perspective. These include ethical issues involving national security and scientific research, dangerous experiments with vulnerable populations, and the ethics of defending against the threat of bioterror.

The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. If you read one book on the way that national security, science, and vulnerable people do not mix, read Eileen Welsome’s account of the so-called “Human Radiation Experiments.” Read about dozens of experiments pursued on African Americans, pregnant women, children with disabilities, and more, in the name of understanding the biological properties of plutonium—the fuel behind atomic bombs. All done behind the great screen of the the Atomic Energy Act, because of plutonium’s status as the key to atomic weapons.

Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans. A book by my current boss, Jonathan D. Moreno, that covers some of the pivotal moments in state experimentation on human beings. The majority of the cases Moreno covers are those pursued in the interests of national security. Particularly in the context of the Cold War, there was a perceived urgent need to marshall basic science in aid of national security. What happened behind the curtain of classification in the name of that security, however, was grim.

Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World–Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It. Ken Alibek is hardly what you’d call a reliable narrator; then again, I can’t imagine what being part of a crack Soviet bioweaponeer unit would do to a person.[2] Nonetheless, it is a foundational read in the immense bioweapons enterprise that was built from the 1970s till the end of the Cold War.

Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies The late Jonathan B. Tucker released this edited volume in 2012; while the debate about dual-use in the life sciences has progressed since then, it is still one of the most thoughtful pieces on the topic of bioterrorism, biological warfare, and the governance of the life sciences out there. It is also accessible in a way that policy documents tend not to be. That’s significant, as the book is a policy document: it started out as a report for the Defense Threat Reducation Agency.

This list could be very long, but if I were to pick out a selection of books that I consider essential to my work, these would be among the top of the list.

As an addendum, an argument emerged on the back of the NSTNS chat about whether science is “good.” That’s a huge topic, but is really important for anyone interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and their intersection with politics and power. As I stated yesterday on Twitter, however, understanding whether “science is good” requires understanding what the “science” bit means. That’s not altogether straightforward.

Giving a recommendation on that issue involves stepping into a large and relatively bitter professional battle. Nonetheless, my first recommendation is always Phillip Kitcher’s Science, Truth, and Democracy. Kitcher carefully constructs a model of where agents interact with scientific methods and tools, and so identifies how we should make ethical judgements about scientific research. I don’t think he gets everything right, but that’s kind of a given in philosophy.

So, thousands of pages of reading. You’re welcome, Internet. There will be a test on Monday.


  1. I’ll update later with a link to a Storify that I believe is currently being built around the event.  ↩
  2. Well, I can. It is called “Ken Alibek.”  ↩

Lipsitch and Galvani Push Back

COMMENTARY: The case against ‘gain-of-function’ experiments: A reply to Fouchier & Kawaoka

Over at CIDRAP, Marc Lipsitch and Alison P. Galvani have responded to critics— specifically, Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka—of their recent study in PLoS Medicine. It is a thorough rebuttal of the offhand dismissal that Lipsitch and Galvani have met from Fouchier and Kawaoka and the virology community more generally.

This is a fantastic addition to the dual-use debate. Too often, stock answers given for the benefits of dual-use are put forward without sustained analysis: things like “will help us make new vaccines,” “will help us with disease surveillance,” or “will raise awareness.” Lipsitch and Galvani have drawn up roadmap of challenges that advocates of gain-of-function studies—specifically those that deal with influenza—must confront in order to the justify public health benefit of their work. We should hold researchers and funding agencies accountable to this kind of burden of proof when it comes to dual-use research.

Dual-use flow chart. Logical structure of the potential lifesaving benefits of PPP experiments, required intermediate steps to achieve those benefits (blue boxes), and key obstacles to achieving those steps highlighted in our original paper (red text). Courtesy Marc Lipsitch, 2014.

Dual-use flow chart. Logical structure of the potential lifesaving benefits of PPP experiments, required intermediate steps to achieve those benefits (blue boxes), and key obstacles to achieving those steps highlighted in our original paper (red text). Courtesy Marc Lipsitch, 2014.

Lipsitch and Galvani’s response is also important because it critically addresses the narrative that Fouchier and Kawaoka have woven around their research. This narrative has been bolstered by the researcher’s expertise in virology, but doesn’t meet the standards of biosecurity, science policy, public health, or bioethics analysis. It’s good to see Lipsitch and Galvani push back, and point to inconsistencies in the type of authority that Fouchier and Kawaoka wield.

UPDATE 06/19/14, 16:32: as I posted this, it occurred to me that the diagram Lipsitch and Galvani provide, while useful, is incomplete. That is, Lipsitch and Galvani have—correctly, I believe—illustrated the problems dual-use advocates must respond in the domain the authors occupy. These are challenges in fields like virology, biology, and epidemiology.

There are other challenges, however, that we could add to this diagram—public health and bioethical, for a start. It’d be a great, interdisciplinary activity to visualize a more complete ecosystem of challenges that face dual-use research, with an eye to presenting avenues forward that address multiple and conflicting perspectives.

How not to critique: a case study

The original title for this piece was “How not to critique in bioethics,” but Kelly pointed out that this episode of TWiV is a case study in how not to go about critiquing anything.

Last Monday I was drawn into a conversation/angry rant about an article by Lynn C. Klotz and Edward J. Sylvester, that appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists…in 2012. After briefly forgetting one of the cardinal rules of the internet—check the date stamp— I realized the error of my ways, and started to inquire with my fellow ranters, in particular Matt Freiman, about why a 2012 article suddenly had virologists up in arms.

Turns out that the Bulletin article was cited by a study on dual-use authored by Marc Lipsitch and Alison P. Galvani; a study that was the subject of a recent post of mine . The Bulletin article draws from a working paper where the provide an estimate for the number of laboratory accidents involving dangerous pathogens we should expect as a function of hours spent in the laboratory. Lipsitch and Galvani use this figure in their analysis of potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs).

Freiman joined Vincent Racaniello, Dickson Despommier, Alan Dove, and Kathy Spindler on This Week in Virology (TWiV) on June 1 to talk about (among other things) Lipsitch and Galvani’s research. What followed is a case study in how not to critique a paper; the hosts served up a platter of incorrect statements, bad reasoning, and some all-out personal attacks.

I’d started writing a blow-by-blow account of the entire segment, but that quickly mushroomed into 5,000-odd words. There is simply too much to talk about—all of it bad. So there’s a draft of a paper on the importance of good science communication on my desk now, that I’ll submit to a journal in the near future.Instead, I’m going to pick up just one particular aspect of the segment that I feel demonstrates the character of TWiV’s critique.

“It’s a bad opinion; that’s my view.”

Despommier, at 58:30 of the podcast, takes issue with this sentence in the PLoS Medicine paper:

The H1N1 influenza strain responsible for significant morbidity and mortality around the world from 1977 to 2009 is thought to have originated from a laboratory accident.

The problem, according to Despommier, is that “thought to have originated” apparently sounds so vague as to be meaningless. This leads to a rousing pile-on conversation in which Despommier claims that he could have just easily claimed that the 1977 flu came from Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome because “he thought it;” he also claims that on the basis of this sentence alone he’d have rejected the article from publication. Finally, he dismisses the citation given in the article as unreliable because it is a review article,[1] and “you can say anything in a review article.”

At the same time, Dove notes that “when you’re on the editorial board of the journal you can avoid [having your paper rejected].” The implication here is that Lipsitch, as a member of the editorial board of PLoS Medicine, must have used that position to get his article to print despite the alleged inaccuracy that has Despommier so riled up. Racaniello notes that “[statements like this are] often done in this opinion–” his full meaning is interrupted by Despommier. It’s a common theme throughout the podcast, though, that Lipsitch and Galvani’s article is mere “opinion,” and thus invalid.

Facts first

If he’d done his homework, Despommier would have noted that the review article cited by Lipsitch and Galvani doesn’t mention a lab. What it does say is:

There is no evidence for integration of influenza genetic material into the host genome, leaving the most likely explanation that in 1977 the H1N1 virus was reintroduced to humans from a frozen source.[2]

So Lipsitch and Galvani do make an apparent leap from “frozen source” to “lab freezer.” Despommier doesn’t pick that up. If he had, however, it would have given us pause about whether or not is a valid move to jump from “frozen source” to “laboratory freezer.”

Not a long pause, however; there are other sources that argue that the 1977 strain is likely to have been a laboratory.[3] The other alternative—that the virus survived in Siberian lake ice—was put forward in a 2006 paper (note, after the publication of the review article used by Lipsitch and Galvani), but that paper was found to be methodologically flawed.[4] Laboratory release remains the most plausible answer to date.

The belief that the 1977 flu originated from frozen laboratory sources is widely held. Even Racaniello—at least, in 2009—holds this view. Racaniello argued that of multiple theories about the origin of the 1977 virus, “only one was compelling”:

…it is possible that the 1950 H1N1 influenza virus was truly frozen in nature or elsewhere and that such a strain was only recently introduced into man.

The suggestion is clear: the virus was frozen in a laboratory freezer since 1950, and was released, either by intent or accident, in 1977. This possibility has been denied by Chinese and Russian scientists, but remains to this day the only scientifically plausible explanation.

So no, there is no smoking gun that confirms, with absolutely unwavering certainty, that the 1977 flu emerged from a lab. But there is evidence: this is far from an “opinion,” and is far from simply making up a story for the sake of an argument. Lipsitch and Galvani were right to write “…it is thought,” because a plausible answer doesn’t make for unshakeable proof—but their claim stands on the existing literature.

Science and policy

The idea that Lipsitch and Galvani’s piece is somehow merely “opinion” is a hallmark of the discussion in TWiV. Never mind that the piece was an externally peer-reviewed, noncommissioned piece of work.[5] As far as TWiV is concerned, it seems that if it isn’t Science, it doesn’t count. Everything else is mere opinion.

But that isn’t how ethics, or policy, works. In ethics we construct arguments, argue about the interpretation of facts and values, and use that to guide action. With rare exception, few believe that we can draw conclusions about what we ought to do straight from an experiment.

In policy, we have to set regulations and guidelines with the information at hand—a policy that waits for unshakeable proof is a policy that never makes it to committee. Is there some question about the true nature of the 1977 flu, or the risks of outbreaks resulting from BSL–3 laboratory safety? You bet there is. We should continue to do research on these issues. We also have to make a decision, and the level of certainty the TWiV hosts seem to desire isn’t plausible.

Authority and Responsibility

This podcast was irresponsible. The hosts, in their haste to pan Lipsitch and Galvani’s work, overstated their case and then some. Dove also accused Lipsitch of research misconduct. I’m not sure what the rest of the editors at PLoS Medicine think of the claim—passive aggressive as it was—that one of their colleagues may have corrupted the review process, but I’d love to find out.

The podcast is also deeply unethical, because of the power in the platform. Racaniello, in 2010, wrote:

Who listens to TWiV? Five to ten thousand people download each episode, including high school, college, and graduate students, medical students, post-docs, professors in many fields, information technology professionals, health care physicians, nurses, emergency medicine technicians, and nonprofessionals: sanitation workers, painters, and laborers from all over the world.[6]

What that number looks like in 2014, I have no idea. I do know, however, that a 5,000–10,000 person listenership, from a decorated virologist and his equally prestigious colleagues, is a pretty decent haul. That doesn’t include, mind you, the people who read Racaniello’s blog, articles, or textbook; who listen to the other podcasts in the TWiV family, or follow the other hosts in other fora.

These people have authority, by virtue of their positions, affiliations, exposure, and followings. The hosts of TWiV have failed to discharge their authority with any kind of responsibility.[7] I know the TWiV format is designed to be “informal,” but there’s a marked difference between being informal, and being unprofessional.

Scientists should—must—be part of conversation about dual-use, as with other important ethical and scientific issues. Nothing here is intended to suggest otherwise. Scientists do, however, have to exercise their speech and conduct responsibly. This should be an example of what not to do.

Final Notes

I want to finish with a comment on two acts that don’t feature in Despommier’s comments and what followed, but are absolutely vital to note. The first is that during the podcast, the paper by Lipsitch and Galvani is frequently referred to as “his” paper. Not “their” paper. Apparently recognizing the second—female—author isn’t a priority for the hosts or guests.

Also, Dove and others have used Do Not Link (“link without improving ”their“ search engine position”) on the TWiV website for both the paper by Lipsitch and Galvani, and supporting materials. So not only do the hosts and guests of the show feel that the paper without merit; they believe that to the point that they’d deny the authors—and the journal—traffic. Personally, I think that’s obscenely petty, but I’ll leave that for a later post.

Science needs critique to function. Critique can be heated—justifiably so. But it also needs to be accurate. This podcast is a textbook example of how not to mount a critique.


  1. Webster, Robert G, William J Bean, Owen T Gorman, Thomas M Chambers, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka. 1992. “Evolution and Ecology of Influenza A Viruses” Microbiological Reviews 56 (1). Am Soc Microbiol: 152–79.  ↩
  2. ibid., p.171.  ↩
  3. Ennis, Francis A. 1978. “Influenza a Viruses: Shaking Out Our Shibboleths.” Nature 274 (5669): 309–10. doi:10.1038/274309b0; Nakajima, Katsuhisa, Ulrich Desselberger, and Peter Palese. 1978. “Recent Human Influenza a (H1N1) Viruses Are Closely Related Genetically to Strains Isolated in 1950.” Nature 274 (5669): 334–39. doi:10.1038/274334a0; Wertheim, Joel O. 2010. “The Re-Emergence of H1N1 Influenza Virus in 1977: a Cautionary Tale for Estimating Divergence Times Using Biologically Unrealistic Sampling Dates.” PLoS One 5 (6). Public Library of Science: e11184. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011184; Zimmer, Shanta M, and Donald S Burke. 2009. “Historical Perspective — Emergence of Influenza a (H1N1) Viruses.” New England Journal of Medicine 361 (3): 279–85. doi:10.1056/NEJMra0904322.  ↩
  4. Worobey, M. 2008. “Phylogenetic Evidence Against Evolutionary Stasis and Natural Abiotic Reservoirs of Influenza a Virus.” Journal of Virology 82 (7): 3769–74. doi:10.1128/JVI.02207–07; Zhang, G, D Shoham, D Gilichinsky, and S Davydov. 2007. “Erratum: Evidence of Influenza a Virus RNA in Siberian Lake Ice.” Journal of Virology 81 (5): 2538; Zhang, G, D Shoham, D Gilichinsky, S Davydov, J D Castello, and S O Rogers. 2006. “Evidence of Influenza a Virus RNA in Siberian Lake Ice.” Journal of Virology 80 (24): 12229–35. doi:10.1128/JVI.00986–06.  ↩
  5. I’m aware that peer review is not sufficient to make a work reliable, but absent evidence that the review process was somehow corrupt or deficient, it’s a far cry from mere opinion.
  6. Racaniello, Vincent R. 2010. “Social Media and Microbiology Education.” PLoS Pathogens 6 (10). Public Library of Science: e1001095.  ↩
  7. Evans, Nicholas G. 2010. “Speak No Evil: Scientists, Responsibility, and the Public Understanding of Science.” NanoEthics 4 (3): 215–20. doi:10.1007/s11569–010–0101-z.  ↩

What am I reading? 15 June 2014

This week involved some heavy reading. I’ve got a series of writing tasks ahead of me, and the last week has involved a lot of citation collection. I find that unless I’ve got most—if not all—my citations at hand, my writing is really inefficient. Lots of scratching my head going “I know that’s a Thing… where did I read it?!” and so on.

Bioethics/STS

Evans, Sam Weiss. 2014. “Synthetic Biology: Missing the Point.” Nature 510: 218.

Sam Evans—no relation—continues to fight the (one of the) good fight(s). Corresponding on behalf of 21 other correspondents, Evans reminds the readers of Nature that:

the point of supporting synthetic biology is not about making sure that science can go wherever it wants: it is about making the type of society people want to live in.

This, I think, nails down the objection I have to a lot of public debates about science and ethics. In a staggering number of contexts—everything from synthetic biology to sexual harassment—there is a tendency for some groups to wring their hands about how a particular movement, regulation, or concern will “stifle” innovation or creativity. I’m happy to see Evans calling bullshit on this particular rhetorical sleight of hand. Serial killers and terrorists can be innovative and creative; an appeal to innovation isn’t valid unless it points to more substantive values.

Glerup, Cecilie, and Maja Horst. 2014. “Mapping ‘Social Responsibility’ in Science.” Journal of Responsible Innovation 1(1): 31–50.

An analysis of different conceptions of responsibility in science, as it relates to the social impact of scientific research.

The article has an important point to make: that there are a number of different ways we understand the relationship between science and society, and that all of these conceptions are active and engaged in contemporary discourse. Unfortunately, for all the time the authors spend on unpacking the governance of science in its varied forms, they don’t unpack the concept of responsibility. Which—considering the article’s title—might be important. The problems intensify in that the review is based around a set of distinctions that aren’t hard or fast rules. This is acknowledged by the authors towards the end of the paper, but it might have been better to proceed with that as a part of the review, rather than an afterthought.

Also, if you’re going to do a review? Being a bit more transparent in one’s methodology. Looking through the references I identified dozens of papers that probably could have been included, but without better knowledge of how the authors structured their search criteria, I don’t know whether those papers were found and rejected, or just never found.

National Research Council. 2014. Emerging and Readily Available Technologies and National Security. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Another Big Government Report on science policy and ethics. I’m about 30 pages in, so don’t spoil the ending for me.

Murphy, Brad, and Jennifer S Reath. 2014. “The Imperative for Investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health.” Medical Journal of Australia 200 (11): 615–16. doi:10.5694/mja14.00632.

An important article about the investment priorities for Indigenous health in Australia. This is an issue that is really close to my heart (my grandfather was a GP, and spent half a century working in rural South Australia), and one that the current Australian Government has compromised in defunding primary care and Indigenous health.

Part of an entire issue of the MJA devoted to Indigenous health.

Infectious Diseases

Almazán, Fernando, Marta L DeDiego, Isabel Sola, Sonia Zuñiga, Jose L Nieto-Torres, Silvia Marquez-Jurado, German Andrés, and Luis Enjuanes. 2013. “Engineering a Replication-Competent, Propagation-Defective Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as a Vaccine Candidate.” mBio 4 (5): e00650–13. doi:10.1128/mBio.00650–13.

A “loss-of-function” study, in which the researchers engineered the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS) to lose its transmissibility. The studies I’ve been arguing against, typically, are “gain-of-function,” and so a loss-of-function study is very interesting. Near as I can tell, the mutations the study makes use of are common to coronaviruses, and don’t correspond to extra properties—so this isn’t a gain-of-function study masquerading as loss-of-function. By interrupting how the virus transcribes its own genetic material, they were able to create a variant of the virus which can replicate, but can’t propagate. Unlike an attenuated virus—which runs the risk of reactivating—this virus appears unable to do so. The authors argue, from this, that their virus presents a better option for study and vaccine development.

Webster, Robert G, William J Bean, Owen T Gorman, Thomas M Chambers, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka. 1992. “Evolution and Ecology of Influenza A Viruses.” Microbiological Reviews 56 (1). Am Soc Microbiol: 152–79.

Wertheim, Joel O. 2010. “The Re-Emergence of H1N1 Influenza Virus in 1977: a Cautionary Tale for Estimating Divergence Times Using Biologically Unrealistic Sampling Dates.” PLoS One 5 (6). Public Library of Science: e11184. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011184.

Nakajima, Katsuhisa, Ulrich Desselberger, and Peter Palese. 1978. “Recent Human Influenza A (H1N1) Viruses Are Closely Related Genetically to Strains Isolated in 1950.” Nature 274 (5669): 334–39. doi:10.1038/274334a0.

Interesting papers on the evolution of the influenza viruses. My particular interest was the evolution of the 1977 influenza virus, which—according to the above papers—matches a 1950 strain so closely that researchers concluded it was likely the 1977 escaped from a laboratory sample.

Racaniello, Vincent R. 2010. “Social Media and Microbiology Education.” PLoS Pathogens 6 (10). Public Library of Science: e1001095.

I’ve a series of bones to pick with Vincent, and this was part of my research. More on that next week.

Tokiko Watanabe, Gongxun Zhong, Colin A Russell, Noriko Nakajima, Masato Hatta, Anthony Hanson, Ryan McBride, et al. 2014. “Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential.” Cell Host & Microbe 15 (692–705). doi:10.1016/j.chom.2014.05.006.

No surprise—I’ve blogged about this paper twice this week (here and here).

History of Science

Foerstel, Herbert N. 1993. Secret Science. Praeger Publishers.

A book I was unable to get my hands on during my PhD, but always wished I could. Foerstel gives some incredible history about censorship and secrecy in science. The chapter I was interested in was the nuclear sciences, as befitting my background. The highlight of the chapter was Foerstel’s retelling of the Office of Censorship requesting the writers of Superman in 1942 cease and desist in a storyline that involved an “atom smasher,” for fear that enemies of the state would infer from the story that something was up (i.e. the race for the bomb). This, mind you, while TIME was reporting that there were zero physics of chemistry papers in the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Society, inferring that something must be up behind the veil of military secrecy.

Philosophy

Kvanvig, Jonathan L. 2003. The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding. Cambridge University Press.

For an article I’m writing on the “ethics of knowledge.” Kvanvig investigates the idea that knowledge has some kind of normative value—in simplest terms, utility—that sets it apart, and makes it more important, than other types of beliefs. The value of meaning has received some attention regarding the internal features of knowledge that make it valuable over, say, a mere true belief, but work in philosophy on the value of knowledge through external appeal, and as a holistic concept, is sparse in the Western analytic tradition. Kvanvig is after that. I read through the introduction and first chapter, as I don’t yet have borrowing privileges at the University of Pennsylvania Library.

Kagan, S. 1992. “The Limits of Well-Being.” Social Philosophy and Policy 9 (2): 169–89.

Kagan, S. 1994. “Me and My Life.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94: 309–24.

Two articles by one of my favourite philosophers. Kagan addresses the same problem in both articles: to what extent is well-being—not the amount of it one has, but how one conceives of it—something that relies entirely on one’s internal state, and to what extent is it something that relates to external properties of the world. Kagan’s writing is nice and conversational, and (unlike a lot of analytic philosophers) he’s less worried about grinding his particular conceptual axe, as he is exploring a series of concepts.

Put another way, there are no answers in these papers. There are, however, a lot of questions.

(Kagan also has an awesome set of lectures on death on YouTube)

Economics/Law

Cheng, Cheng, and Mark Hoekstra. 2013. “Does Strengthening Self-Defense Law Deter Crime or Escalate Violence? Evidence From Expansions to Castle Doctrine.” Journal of Human Resources 48 (3). University of Wisconsin Press: 821–54.

McClellan, Chandler B, and Erdal Tekin. 2012. Stand Your Ground Laws and Homicides. IZA Discussion Paper 6705.

Cook, Philip J. 2013. “Why Stand Your Ground Laws Are Dangerous.” Scholars Strategy Network. Scholars Strategy Network.

A series or articles provided to my by Philip Cook (author of the third article) on the “stand your ground” gun laws that have emerged since Florida introduced theirs in 2005. I’m starting some work on gun control and regulation in the United States, and Philip was kind enough to correspond with me and provide me with some starting points.

Coase, Ronald Harry. 1974. “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas.” The American Economic Review. JSTOR: 384–91.

One of the classics of the vast literature on the right to freedom of speech. Central to Coase’s argument is that the market of goods and the “marketplace of ideas” (the quotes acknowledging that, as Sparrow and Goodin argue persuasively, the market metaphor doesn’t apply cleanly to ideas) are treated in divergent ways. Coase points out that this either means that something is wrong with our laws and philosophy, and argues that it is likely we’ve got both types of markets wrong (but in different ways). This is a reread; it’s been about five years since I last read this article.

Fiction

Preston, Richard. 1998. The Cobra Event. Ballantine Books

Excellent novel about a bioterror attack. Yes, I study bioterrorism for a living, and when I finish my work for the day I like to relax with a little light reading about fictional bioterrorism. Hits some of the most important aspects—as far as I’m concerned—of bioterrorism, and the incredibly difficulty of policing and tracking such an attack. Preston’s occasional interludes about the politics and science behind bioweapons (at least as understood in the 1990s) give serious plausibility to the novel. The science is a little dated—biology has come a long way in 16 years—but I don’t think that detracts from the novel at all.

Bad Bioethics Headline: 1918-like flu edition

Terrence McCoy has an article in the Washington Post‘s “Morning Mix” on the 1918-like flu virus gain-of-function study. It provides a bit of extra information beyond the coverage at the Guardian, and is worth a read.

The article, unfortunately, has a terrible headline. A “we need an award for Bad Bioethics Headlines” headline.

The headline reads “Was it ‘crazy’ for this scientist to re-create a bird flu virus that killed 50 million people?” There are some glaring errors, or misinformation, embedded in this headline; errors that, unfortunately, aren’t explicitly dealt with in the content of the article. And the errors, to a certain extent, undercut the seriousness of the work done.

1) First, nothing was “re-created.” The 1918 strain of H1N1 influenza has already been recreated using reverse genetics—in 2005. This work is also widely considered dual-use research of concern.

The work performed by Kawaoka and his team, however, is not a recreation in the traditional sense—the sense we mean when we talk about piecing together a poliovirus, or synthesizing Spanish flu. Rather, this new research involved piecing together a “1918-like” virus—one whose proteins differ by a few amino acids from the one that emerged almost a century ago—using segments of avian influenza. This wasn’t a recreation; it was just creation pure and simple.

2) The influenza pandemic in 1918 isn’t really “bird flu” in the conventional sense. Sure, it is likely that the strain of flu in 1918 emerged from an avian (and swine) reservoir at some point, but that’s because of the 18 different types of hemagglutinin (the “H” in H1N1), and 11 types of neuraminidase (the “N” in H1N1) that we know of, all of them can survive in birds. So all flu has something to do with birds.

We tend to label viruses as "bird" or "pig" viruses when we're talking about the most common host.

We tend to label viruses as “bird” or “pig” viruses when we’re talking about the most common host.

But that’s definitely not what we typically mean when we talk about “bird flu.” Avian influenza is used to describe influenza viruses that arise predominantly or exclusively in birds. What makes H5N1, or H7N9 scary is that they are viruses that predominantly occur in birds, that are crossing over to humans. Fortunately, H5N1 hasn’t been terribly successful at this, and H7N9—while more successful—is not at pandemic levels. Yet.

The “recreated” virus isn’t an avian influenza virus in the same way. The influenza that served as its template is ostensibly “human” or at least “mammalian” flu, that to the best of our knowledge came about from both avian and swine viruses that combined to make a human-transmissible superbug. The parts from which this novel strain was stitched together are bits of bird flu.

The point Kawaoka has been trying to sell the world on is that he wanted to find out—for the good of us all, he has claimed—if something like 1918-influenza could emerge from H5N1. Apparently, the answer is yes.

These all matter because they bear heavily on the “why?!” of this story. This virus didn’t come out of nature, but rather was made in a lab. And it hasn’t been recreated, but outright engineered. As with other gain of function studies, proponents of this story like to say that this will raise awareness about the pandemic preparedness, disease surveillance, and so on. I’ve voiced my skepticism about this before.

It also matters because—as the study notes—the virus created isn’t as harmful as 1918 influenza, but more harmful. Kawaoka’s paper notes that the virus his team created is more pathogenic than an authentic avian influenza virus, or the 1918 influenza pandemic strain. We’re not dealing with Spanish influenza: this is a human created, mammalian transmissible strain of flu that outperforms the “Mother of All Pandemics” in trials. That’s scary. And, while they were only testing the strains on three ferrets at a time, which isn’t enough to give us an idea of how this would affect humans in an outbreak, it is certainly enough to give us pause.

There is power in the platform. The Washington post, by its own numbers, has a readership of 24 million people. It should probably work a little on its headlines.

 

 

Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential

Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential

The latest in dual-use gain of function research, Yoshihiro Kawaoka and his team seem to be intent on one-upping Ron Fouchier when it comes to spurious research. This time, the group used reverse genetics to cobble together a “1918-flu like virus, composed of avian influenza virus segments.” The new virus demonstrates higher pathogenicity in ferrets than the case-fatality rate of the original 1918 flu virus. For reference, the 1918 pandemic killed 50 million people.

The summary of the article:

  • Current circulating avian flu viruses encode proteins similar to the 1918 virus
  • A 1918-like virus composed of avian influenza virus segments was generated
  • The 1918-like virus is more pathogenic in mammals than an authentic avian flu virus
  • Seven amino acid substitutions were sufficient to confer transmission in ferrets.

In a commentary in the Guardian, the same types of justifications were rolled out by Kawaoka: awareness, medical countermeasures, and surveillance. Still lacking an argument as to why gain-of-function really promotes these, over other (less dangerous) research if at all.

What Am I Reading? 8 June 2014

One of the things I’m asked most often by non-philosopher, non-bioethics types is “what exactly is that you do during the day?” The answer, by and large, is that I read and write. My reading can be pretty diverse and—at times—obscure. Below are a handful of the things I read this week.

Dewey, John. 1929. Experience and Nature. London: George Allen & Unwin, pp. 1–100

My supervisor-to-be and I were talking about American philosophy late last week, when I revealed to him that I’d not read any of John Dewey’s work. Jonathan, a gung-ho pragmatist, recommended I get stuck in to Experience and Nature. So I did. It is—in Jonathan’s own words—turgid, but there are gems.[1]

Grande, David, Sarah E Gollust, Maximilian Pany, Jane Seymour, Adeline Goss, Austin Kilaru, and Zachary Meisel. 2014. “Translating Research for Health Policy: Researchers’ Perceptions and Use of Social Media.” Health Affairs. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2014.0300.

A paper about the trends in social media use among health and healthcare researchers. Nothing particularly stunning in the conclusions: apparently, older academics don’t like social media much, and in general the healthcare sector are a bit apprehensive about communicating via Twitter.

There’s an interesting tidbit tucked in the bottom of Table 1, however. There was a drop-off in female use of social media in this sector that appears divergent from male use. There isn’t any mention of gender differences in the study, but it certainly seems to stand out.

Moya-Anegón, Félix, and Víctor Herrero-Solana. 2013. “Worldwide Topology of the Scientific Subject Profile: a Macro Approach in the Country Level.” PLoS One 8 (12). Public Library of Science: e83222. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083222.

Moya-Anegón and Herrero-Solana present a cluster analysis of publications across different countries. They found three clusters of research and, matching them against country outputs, posited a geographic distribution of research interests.

I thought their discussion could be a bit more robust, however, and would like to see some more work done on the why of particular research outputs in countries. The Eastern Bloc, for example, lost a lot of its talent in the life sciences during the Lysenko Affair; a murderous head of Russian science killing of advocates of gene theory is going to cramp a country’s style in genetics. Building these complex stories into robust and current data would be an excellent addition to the field.

Glass, Jonathan D, Nicholas M Boulis, Karl Johe, Seward B Rutkove, Thais Federici, Meraida Polak, Crystal Kelly, and Eva L Feldman. 2012. “Lumbar Intraspinal Injection of Neural Stem Cells in Patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: Results of a Phase I Trial in 12 Patients.” Stem Cells 30 (6). Wiley Online Library: 1144–51.

Read as part of a post Kelly and I are putting together. More on that soon.

Resnik, David B. 2013. “H5N1 Avian Flu Research and the Ethics of Knowledge.” Hastings Center Report 43 (2). Wiley Online Library: 22–33. doi:10.1002/hast.143.

I’m writing a paper about—surprise, surprise—dual-use, and in no small part am responding to David’s treatment of the so-called “ethics of knowledge.” This, and a range of other papers that I haven’t listed here, were background to that piece.

Sobel, D. 1994. “Full Information Accounts of Well-Being.” Ethics 104 (4): 784–810.

There’s a lot of philosophy out there, and I’m doing my best to make sure that my own accounts of ethics aren’t just reinventing other people’s concerns. If they are, I’d rather just cite them and save the scholarly space for something that’s more contribution-y. Sobel has some interesting stuff on how we account for our own and other’s wellbeing; it’s particularly pertinent for anyone working in economics or social policy (me).

Mableson, Hayley E, Anna Okello, Kim Picozzi, and Susan Christina Welburn. 2014. “Neglected Zoonotic Diseases—the Long and Winding Road to Advocacy.” PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 8 (6): e2800. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0002800.

Great little article on the action—or lack thereof—of international agencies and government to recognize or address issues surrounding neglected zoonotic diseases. Discussion centers around the need for advocacy, and what that entails at a high level.

Fouchier, Ron A M, Vincent Munster, Anders Wallensten, Theo M Bestebroer, Sander Herfst, Derek Smith, Guus F Rimmelzwaan, Björn Olsen, and Albert D M E Osterhaus. 2005. “Characterization of a Novel Influenza a Virus Hemagglutinin Subtype (H16) Obtained From Black-Headed Gulls.” Journal of Virology 79: 2814–22.

Reading a paper by Ron Fouchier? Not surprising, considering he a frequent subject of my writing (here, here, here) .

Many of these titles are available online, for free. For those who aren’t, I’m happy to provide #canhazpdf assistance.


  1. Dewey really had an optimistic belief about the way science worked. This isn’t surprising for the early 20th century. Still, Dewey writes “physicists did not think for a moment of denying the validity of what was found in that experience [provided by the results of the Michelson-Morely experiments], even though it rendered questionable an elaborate intellectual apparatus and system.” That? Isn’t what happened. In fact, there were a litany of experiments that followed trying to measure the aether flux due to the earth’s motion.  ↩