The unfounded fears of Influenza research
As if the H5N1 transmission papers weren’t talked about enough, now the likelihood of similar research with H7N9 has lead to more unfounded fears. The first report of a possible human to human transmission of H7N9 came out a few days ago, and rather than instill fear that scientists will “create a deadly virus just to prove they can,” this possibility of an epidemic should highlight the importance of studying such a pathogen.
This has been harped on by every scientist I know, but it apparently still needs to be said. Even if we tried to engineer a more virulent and transmissible virus, we would never be able to out-craft nature. Natural selection will take place, and an animal-to-human or human-to-human transmissible virus will eventually pass into humans, and it is our job to get ahead of it and find out where it is going. There isn’t a single pathogen we could engineer that nature wouldn’t be able to do better.
Maybe more importantly, nature does not stop playing the game even if we decide to quit. It is Jumanji, and we are the kids playing the game. Even if we want to leave all the horrors of the game behind, we can’t. We are but pawns in nature’s game of chess.
The value of understanding mechanisms behind a potential pandemic virus is immeasurable. In the highly possible scenario, where a few thousand people come down with serious illness caused by influenza H7N9, the worst possible thing we could say is “well you’re screwed because we stopped looking for a cure.” Even in the most extreme circumstance, where a lab strain is somehow released that is highly transmissible and virulent, the best way to combat the threat is to do more research.
Biosecurity is something every lab takes very seriously. As researchers, we take precautions to prevent both samples from getting contaminated, as well as ourselves from getting infected. Scientists are humans, too. We would rather not get seriously ill, and thus we have measures to prevent exposure to pathogens.
The fear mongering will never end because layman-shocking sensationalized headlines sell. But like all trolls, they get off on your attention. So give them none, and leave the scientists and the ferrets to save your lives. After all, “it is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.” – Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything.