How to Prepare for Super Strains?

As the Ebola epidemic continues to terrorize much of West Africa, a conversation is happening in the science and research communities about what can be done to prevent or address another deadly outbreak. This week on NPR, a segment titled “Biologists Choose Sides In Safety Debate Over Lab-Made Pathogens” laid out the debate: is the risk of conducting experiments with infectious elements worth it?

“Proponents of the work say that in order to protect the public from the next naturally occurring pandemic, they have to understand what risky infectious agents are capable of — and that means altering the microbes in experiments.”

This side of the debate shifts the argument away from whether or not scientists should even conduct these experiments, saying instead that we should focus on giving them the safest equipment possible. Scientists should research infectious and contagious bacteria, this line of thinking says, to understand the outbreaks and be prepared to protect the public’s health if something were to happen.

Meanwhile, “critics argue that the knowledge gained from making new strains of these germs isn’t worth the risk, because a lab-made pathogen might escape the laboratory and start spreading among people.”

Both sides have garnered support from the science community and have formed their own coalitions of heavy hitters in the research field. The National Academy of Sciences has been called on to arrange a forum where both sides can come together for an open conversation.

The outcome is TBD, but this topic has clearly taken on new relevance in recent weeks.

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