Expert Opinion: Avian Flu Experiments Pose Public Health Risk

Marc Lipsitch questions the ethics of creating new transmissible strains.

Marc Lipsitch

Experiments that make virulent avian flu strains more transmissible among mammals put the public’s health at unnecessary risk, and therefore raise ethical concerns, write Harvard professor of epidemiology Marc Lipsitch and Yale professor Alison Galvani in a policy forum article, “Ethical Alternatives to Experiments with Novel Potential Pandemic Pathogens,” that appeared Tuesday in PLoS Medicine. Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Galvani, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling at Yale, call for greater scrutiny of such experiments.

The aim of research that manipulates the transmissibility of avian flu is the improvement of surveillance methods and vaccine design, but Lipsitch and Galvani argue that even when such research is conducted under high levels of biosecurity, the risk of accidental release and global spread, though small, outweighs any potential benefits. They urge the U.S. government and other funders to “consider the risk and whether we could gain the same or greater public health benefits from spending the same money and resources on safer experiments.” Lipsitch raised this issue last year, as described in this magazine, when a year-long global ban on such experimentation was coming to an end.

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