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Fighting Viruses with Viruses

I don’t know how Yoshihiro Kawaoka sleeps at night. It isn’t that I think he’s a bad guy, and future historians looking back on our generation may remember him as a scientist who legitimately saved the world. But whether what he’s doing is heroic or reckless depends entirely on factors beyond his control—and ours.

If you’ve been following the media coverage of Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the fact that he creates more virulent flu variants for laboratory study doesn’t present much of an ethical question: they say rather casually that it’s obviously wrong, that he shouldn’t be doing it, and that this is the end of the story. That’s the simple media narrative, and it may be correct. Quite often articles about Kawaoka’s work quote a member of the Institutional Biosafety Committee condemning his research. Less often, these articles mention that a supermajority of the Institutional Biosafety Committee approved of his research in advance and gave him specific permission to conduct it. Their reasons for doing so have not been discussed in any serious detail in the media, so we’re left to guess as to what those reasons might have been.

Anatomy of a flu virus. Image: CDC

I think the committee’s decision may have had something to do with the inevitable mutation—or manipulation—of virulent flu strains, and the need to get ahead of the curve and improve our understanding of influenza before it’s too late. The people who condemn Kawaoka for his research—and again, they have valid reasons for doing so—seldom mention the possibility that in five years, laboratories all over the world will be creating H1N1 and H5N1 variants under less secure conditions. If we’re unprepared to fight these strains because we’ve prevented virologists like Kawaoka from doing their work, it will be our recklessness—and not his—that dooms millions.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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