Smallpox. Anthrax. An especially lethal form of bird flu. The list of diseases caused by pathogens that appear to have been handled carelessly by federal laboratories is chill-inducing.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill understandably demanded answers this week from the nation’s top health officials after recent news reports revealed that dangerous biological agents had been improperly transferred between facilities by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or stored for decades in an unsecured area at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
But a congressional hearing, held Wednesday by a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, was an exercise in frustration for anyone hoping for a thoughtful discussion. Blamemongering and political point scoring abounded. Missing was consideration of the broader questions raised by the incidents about the responsibilities accompanying modern science’s rapidly evolving laboratory capacities.
As the University of Minnesota’s Michael Osterholm puts it, humans now have the ability to engineer the “Andromeda strain” — the name given to the usually fatal but fictional microbe featured in a movie decades ago. At the same time, human error is incurable. If these high-profile incidents happened at such respected American agencies, similar scary mistakes could and very likely have happened elsewhere. We just don’t know about them.
The implications are frightening. Public and private labs built to handle the dangerous pathogens have proliferated globally in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. The number of seasoned staff members — those who understand the need for triple safety checks and can enforce them — is spread too thin, she said.
The ability to manipulate a pathogen to increase its lethality, something made disturbingly accessible by technological advances, further heightens concerns. The point of doing so is to better understand what makes disease agents more dangerous and potentially prevent pathogens’ natural evolution from spawning global epidemics. The downside is the potential for accidental or deliberate release of one of these manipulated organisms.
In late 2011, news that two scientific teams had made the influenza virus more contagious and planned to publish their results triggered an international debate. One of the teams was just a few hundred miles southeast of the Twin Cities at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
A deep divide continues in the scientific world about the need for this research. Widespread consensus on how to do it securely is also lacking.
The incidents at the NIH and CDC seriously undermine advocates’ contentions that the risks are manageable. The incidents should also elevate voices of reason, such as Osterholm, who have called for curtailing such research on potential pandemic pathogens until a scientific summit can develop guidelines to ensure that benefits outweigh risks.
“A modern version of the Asilomar process, which engaged scientists in proposing rules to manage research on recombinant DNA, could be a starting point to identify the best approaches to achieve the global public health goals of defeating pandemic disease and assuring the highest level of safety,’’ stated a release this week from the newly convened Cambridge Working Group.
The group is calling for such an effort to get underway. Signatories on the statement include Osterholm and other high-profile scientists and public health experts.
With the fall elections looming, perhaps it was too much to hope that the congressional hearing would be productive. The committee was right to haul in the CDC’s director, Dr. Tom Frieden, to testify. But the push for accountability morphed into members doing little more than utter various iterations of “isn’t this terrible?”
What happened at these federal agencies is disturbing. But committee members needed to do more than point that out. They should have put a much-needed spotlight on the need for the Cambridge Working Group.
Committee members also failed to explore their own role in troubles at the CDC. The agency’s budget has taken a hit in this age of sequestration even as Congress has increased the agency’s public health duties. Neither the nation nor the world can afford to have this agency at anything less than full strength. Funding cuts to the World Health Organization mean the world is leaning hard on the CDC for disease surveillance and outbreak prevention.
Frieden certainly should have been sent back to Atlanta with admonitions ringing in his ears. But he also should have been given assurances that the CDC has the support it needs to carry out its vital mission.