10-3: Focusing Our Research Efforts

The circumstance of Contagion brings to light an interesting predicament: huge, deadly epidemics are not especially common, and most are relatively easy to treat in the modern era, but this does not mean that a superbug like that of Contagion could not theoretically occur. If such a disease were to occur, it would be nearly impossible to be perfectly prepared. There are certainly going to be casualties, but the number of casualties is largely dependent on how prepared governments and relevant organizations across the world are for such an outbreak.

Nouri and Chyba’s piece focuses on the mix between risks and benefits of research biological engineering and notes that it is important to balance our increasing biological capabilities with advances in biological security. However, we cannot explicitly stock vaccinations or build security protocols against new disease that we have never seen. Such diseases may be rare, so the question in my mind is: how much should we be spending on securing ourselves against such naturally occurring supervirus or superdisease outbreaks?

On the one hand, such outbreaks are rare and much of our biological research focuses on addressing current diseases and advancing their treatment, which seems prudent considering Nouri and Chyba cite that about 14 million people die annually from infectious diseases already. However, is there something “worse” about a devastating epidemic like Contagion’s that would essentially shut down society and require a huge rebuilding effort because it is outside of the “norm”?

I think it’s an interesting conversation topic to get going – I agree with Nouri and Chyba’s assessment that regardless of the nature of our research we should have security procedures in place as these technologies are becoming increasingly dangerous, but I am curious if our new “biotechnological power” as Nouri and Chyba call it is better spent on being prepared for huge emergencies or addressing known problems? I certainly wouldn’t want the events of Contagion to happen, but it also seems irresponsible to some degree to worry about hypotheticals when real diseases are already happening. — Dan

2 thoughts on “10-3: Focusing Our Research Efforts

  1. I think the notion that “deadly epidemics are not especially common, and most are relatively easy to treat in the modern era” is an inaccurately optimistic view of the state of medicine today. When it comes to treating infectious diseases, we face a huge disparity in our power to fight some diseases versus others. We have bacterial infections mostly under control with antibiotics, but our rampant use of broad-spectrum antibiotics is leading to the increasing development of resistant strains, and hospitals have become breeding grounds for bacterial pathogens resistant to multiple antibiotics. Unfortunately, antibiotic development has slowed down drastically over the past several decades, and we are still mostly utilizing the antibiotics developed in the 1940’s and 50’s. Most antibiotics developed since then quickly saw resistance develop or saw rather unpleasant side effects in humans, leaving us with only a few drugs that are slowly becoming genetically antiquated. This is the state of the fight in an area of infectious diseases that we feel we are winning. In the realm of viral diseases we are far further behind. Antiviral therapies are few, having only been first developed in the 1980s, and are almost exclusively very specific in their target. HIV/AIDS has been the primary target of antiviral research, and those drugs will do essentially nothing to a non-retrovirus like influenza. Vaccines have been more successful, but once again can only protect against rather specific strains of very specific viruses.
    So while I agree that we cannot stop working towards addressing the diseases afflicting the world today, we also cannot lose sight of the very real potential for a Contagion-scale pathogen to cause devastation like we have never seen.

  2. Great post. The thing that I find most interesting about all this is balancing the risks and benefits of research biological engineering. While it is true that we cannot explicitly stock vaccinations for new disease, especially naturally occuring new diseases, we can take steps to counter potential biological weapons. Possibly, instead of the extensive research that goes into what might and might not be used as a weapon, the focus should be shifted to what Nouri describes in his other work as “Proliferation Resistant Technology,” or developing safeguards that are built into the technology that can be used for more negative purposes. Since 2001, according to Nouri, the federal government has diverted some $40 billion dollars to civilian biodefense projects. Some of this money could be better spend developing proliferation resistant safeguards in either new or existing technology. I agree with Nouri that this spending could go farther than if it were simply spent on speculative research.

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