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