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RS137 - Marc Lipsitch on, "Should scientists try to create dangerous viruses?"

Release date: June 28, 2015

Marc LipsitchA controversial field of research is "gain-of-function," in which scientists take a virus (like a strain of flu) and attempt to make it more dangerous, for example by making it transmissible in mammals when it had previously been solely an avian flu. The motivation is to learn how viruses might mutate in nature so that we can be prepared -- but what if those engineered "superbugs" escape the lab and start a pandemic? In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Harvard professor of epidemiology Marc Lipsitch argues that the risks outweigh the benefits, and that we should halt gain-of-function research as soon as possible.

Marc Lipsitch is Professor of Epidemiology with primary appointment in the Department of Epidemiology and a joint appointment in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases. He directs the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, a center of excellence funded by the MIDAS program of NIH/NIGMS. He is also the Associate Director of the Interdisciplinary Concentration in Infectious Disease Epidemiology.

Marc's pick:  "Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions About Prediction and National Security" 

NEW: Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (10)

Thank you for the Podcast and the literature,
I listened carefully to Marc and will soon read the security report he recommends by Richard Danzig.

We have heard that the public can participate in the debate on GoF (Gain of Function) research, first from the NSABB and then from the European Commission.
I feel an ordinary person cannot comprehend enough to come to a careful opinion on this matter. And I don't see much of a public debate either (you can try ;-) so that confirms my feelings about the difficulty of GoF.
The American government has finally hired a contractor to decide: Dr. Rocco Casagrande of Gryphon Scientific. But now I feel we are bound to get a mainstream answer, perhaps that avian flu manipulation has to be done at BSL-4 level from now on, while the dual use aspect of GoF risk assessment brings fundamentally new challenges that cannot be addressed for reasons of practicality.

More to read, three articles that Gain of Function virologists like to refer to in defense of their work, before you can formulate your own conclusions:

Gain‑of‑function experiments: time for a real debate
W. Paul Duprex, Ron A. M. Fouchier, Michael J. Imperiale, Marc Lipsitch and David A. Relman

Influenza Gain-of-Function Experiments: Their Role in Vaccine Virus Recommendation and Pandemic Preparedness

Use of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A(H5N1) Gain-Of-Function Studies for Molecular-Based Surveillance and Pandemic Preparedness

And a Summer Program:
July 22 -24: Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and International Security
"Advances in the life sciences and the revolution in biotechnology are frequently referred to as being dual-use. The recent controversy over experiments with H5N1 is only the latest example of this dual-use dilemma. What is dual-use dilemma? What are the risks posed by dual-use research? How feasible and desirable are proposed measures to regulate dual-use research? What are the potential costs of such proposals? What is the proper balance to be struck between science and security?"
June 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGiga Gerard
I have been asked about my brief comments near the end on antimicrobial resistance from agricultural use of antimicrobial drugs. A fuller statement of those points with more nuance is here in an article recently published. The point is not that it is harmless, but that the threat seems to me overplayed (for example the recent White House summit gave animal use equal billing with human use -- not in line with the evidence of harm which is much greater for huma use.
June 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMarc Lipsitch
@Marc Lipsitch, your moot point that the use of antimicrobial drugs in agriculture has low impact on resistance in human bacteria does become interesting!

Of all the dangers in the field the inevitability of lab accidents and the proliferation of dual use techniques are on top of MY list.
Lab workers give lip service to the public Gain of Function debate, but at home they show "Add to Cart" mentality:

But when the field itself expresses their worry it is often about veterinary pharmaceuticals.
A point veterinarians of the One Health Initiative make concerns not humans, but wildlife... (who would have thought) vultures!

In Holland we have animal virologists like Prof. Thijs Kuiken (Erasmus) working for the One Health Initiative. They try hard to win regulators over, and we can expect measures to further curtail antibiotics use in the near future.

The Dutch minister of Health, Edith Schippers, writes:
"Only administer antibiotics after careful diagnosis and therefore not for every infection.
In livestock farming, the use of antibiotics must go further down. No preventive use. And as a last resort only for people.
Of course we need new antibiotics. How do we make it attractive for the industry to invest in means for which there is no good business case? A question that demands an answer.
In short, we need to work hard. In health care, livestock farming and in science. With other countries, with industry and in science. We should really work collectively."
June 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGiga Gerard
To keep the discussion going:
About what the Dutch minister said, that researchers and industry should work together.
What was that about?
Artemis One Health is a new group in Holland "breaking barriers between disciplines and stakeholders".
Sounds idealistic, but the leaders of Artemis are Osterhaus and Claassen, who worked together before.
They wanted to capitalize on their patent portfolio Human metapneumovirus, obtained from research at the state funded Erasmus MC viruslab.
This commercialization effort won them a prize of 1 million euro from the Dutch government (Claassen now calls it his).
All for the good of mankind? Or are the Dutch simply incredibly corrupt?
This question for me is impossible to answer, but it smells fishy. I just don't suppose their group would have shared the revenues back with the Dutch government, except perhaps in taxes, after sell off to some big pharmaceutical company once they got the vaccine line for the metapneumovirus (type of pneumonia) running.
The only sword I have is gossip, let's wield it:
Maybe Osterhaus and Claassen are scrounging for new patents at the expense of sympathetic One Health animal researchers?
June 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGiga Gerard
Amazing information in the post
July 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGovt Jobs in India
nice lines about virus The point is not that it is harmless, but that the threat seems to me overplayed (for example the recent White House
July 21, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterankit
we need to work hard. In health care, livestock farming and in science. With other countries, with industry and in science. We should really work collectively
July 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEva Gaur
What a great thinking. Totally agree with you. It really help to motivation.
August 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNovi Ven
Routinely treating healthy livestock with antibiotics merely to increase production makes almost no sense. The pathogens that infect birds and mammals also infect humans. Furthermore, resistance in these pathogens can spread into the food supply and into the urban and wild environment, including to other species of pathogens through plasmid transfer.

From the guest on this podcast, gain-of-function research seems almost pointless. It apparently wastes resources and creates a tremendous risk while not actually advancing the science of preventing or treating any disease.

We definitely need more transparency about accidents and breeches of protocol at taxpayer funded labs.
December 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
sounds like a great plot for the Sci-Fi Movies but I don't think we should actually be making this a possibility in real life. 😬 I think this is too risky to take and we should instead be focused on controlling/defeating these viruses and not on strengthening them because error & unforeseen factors are not going to go well with these 'Superbugs' for sure.
January 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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