A Controversial Virus Study Reveals a Critical Flaw in How Science Is Done

Last year, the world learned that researchers led by David Evans from the University of Alberta had resurrected a virus called horsepox. The virus hasn’t been seen in nature for decades, but Evans’s team assembled it using genetic material that they ordered from a company that synthesizes DNA.

The work caused a huge stir. Horsepox is harmless to people, but its close cousin, smallpox, killed hundreds of millions before being eradicated in 1980. Only two stocks of smallpox remain, one held by Russia and the other by the U.S. But Evans’s critics argued that his work makes it easier for others to recreate smallpox themselves, and, whether through accident or malice, release it. That would be horrific: Few people today are immunized against smallpox, and vaccine reserves are limited. Several concerned parties wrote letters urging scientific journals not to publish the paper that described the work, but PLOS One did so in January.

This controversy is the latest chapter in an ongoing debate around “dual-use research of concern”—research that could clearly be applied for both good and ill. More than that, it reflects a vulnerability at the heart of modern science, where small groups of researchers and reviewers can make virtually unilateral decisions about experiments that have potentially global consequences, and that everyone else only learns about after the fact. Cue an endlessly looping GIF of Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm saying, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Except Evans did think about whether he should, and clearly came down on yes. In one of several new opinion pieces that reflect on the controversy, he and his colleague Ryan Noyce argue that recreating horsepox has two benefits. First, Tonix, the company that funded the research, hopes to use horsepox as the basis of a safer smallpox vaccine, should that extinct threat ever be itself resurrected. Second, the research could help scientists to more efficiently repurpose poxviruses into vaccines against other diseases, or even weapons against cancer. (Evans politely declined a request for interview, noting that he’d “rather let [his] piece speak for itself.”)

Tom Inglesby, a health-security expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, doesn’t buy it. He says these purported benefits are hypothetical, and could be achieved in safer ways that don’t involve horsepox at all. Even if you …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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