The underlying questions and goals of this work are important. But much of the experimental approach is fraught with risk that is scientifically unnecessary and poorly justified.
There are other approaches for addressing these questions that would be much less risky. The investigators seem to be so fixated on the possibility of the re-emergence of a highly virulent and transmissible 1918-like influenza virus that they undertook a series of genetic manoeuvers in the laboratory designed explicitly to create such a virus, even though this set of genetic mutations may be improbable in nature.
They start by bringing together pieces of disparate viruses from different places and years into a new mosaic virus, and then select for new dangerous mutations in animals, as well as introduce a variety of mutations of their choosing.
Their goal is to see if they can create a highly virulent and highly transmissible virus, regardless of the probabilities that this virus will occur in nature. In my opinion, they are not acting prudently; they fail to demonstrate a proper balancing of risks and benefits.
The experiments they perform pose risks for the rest of humanity; the benefits that are realized from this work today do not measure up to the risks that all of us must now bear.
I am quite concerned that a number of scientists now seem willing to undertake a wide variety of genetic manipulations in the laboratory in order to see if they can come up with a dangerous infectious agent, under the justification that it might happen in nature. This just doesn’t make sense.
Professor David A. Relman works in the departments of medicine, microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, California