Science

The Next Viral Epidemic Could Be Our Own Fault

SARS feels like as much a distant memory of the 2000s as Sean Paul songs, but it’s still very much alive. In fact, it’s breeding in labs around the world — and our own research could trigger the next epidemic.

According to a recent, chilling report published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we might be making a terrible mistake by putting so much work into beating SARS. It might be our very magnitude of scientific effort that gets people sick.

Smallpox, for example, is only kept alive in two facilities in the entire world — one in the US, and one in Russia — where samples can be held to the highest possible quarantine levels and every possible safety mechanism is applied. We do that because we sure don’t want a smallpox outbreak that could kill millions.

SARS, along with the 1918 Influenza and Bird Flu, is in the exact same category as smallpox — “potential pandemic pathogens” — which means it poses an enormous potential risk on another level entirely from, say, HIV. And unlike smallpox these three PPPs are everywhere: there are 42 labs currently conducting treatment research, 30 on SARS alone. This presents a catch-22. Why? Maths, of course:

Simple mathematical analysis gives real reason for concern about the handling of these dangerous viruses. Consider the probability for escape from a single lab in a single year to be 0.003 (i.e., 0.3 per cent), an estimate that is conservative in light of a variety of government risk assessments for biolabs and actual experience at laboratories studying dangerous pathogens. Calculating from this probability, it would take 536 years for there to be an 80 per cent chance of at least one escape from a single lab. But with 42 labs carrying out live PPP research, this basic 0.3 per cent probability translates to an 80 per cent likelihood of escape from at least one of the 42 labs every 12.8 years, a time interval smaller than those that have separated influenza pandemics in the 20th century. This level of risk is clearly unacceptable.

Pair this increased likelihood of a PPP escaping (which has happened in the past) with the fact that SARS carries over a 9 per cent fatality rate, and you’ve got one hell of a horrible hypothetical on your hands:

[Last decade], one woman infected [with SARS] in Hong Kong flew to Toronto, a city with outstanding public health capabilities. The woman initiated infections in 438 people in Canada, and 44 of them died. What if the next infected person flies to a crowded city in a poor nation, where surveillance and quarantine capabilities are minimal? Or to a war zone where there may be no public health infrastructure worthy of the name? In such settings, an all but unstoppable pandemic could be seeded before SARS were even identified.

Tens of millions, if not a hundred million people, could die across the globe, all as a result of simple human error by the same hands trying to eradicate these viruses. The report concludes that biohazard safety needs to be seriously cranked up and monitored internationally, and it suggests that researching these “natural” threats might be more threatening than any chance occurrence from nature. In other words, it might not be worth letting a shot at the cure kill us. The full report is absolutely worth reading, and the debate absolutely worth having. [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists]

Images: CDC


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