Lab safety, smallpox and more virulent flu, marijuana benefits, plus headless, heedless, and clueless at Science

Lab safety is even worse than you thought

The best single blog source for keeping up with the current smallpox-anthrax-flu-lab safety fiasco is Maryn McKenna’s Superbug, one of the Wired blogs.  Some recent posts:

About the cache of old vials apparently containing infectious agents and found in an FDA lab at the National Institutes of Health: In addition to the ones disclosed last week (the six vials labeled “variola,” which is the virus that causes smallpox, and ten other samples with unclear labeling), there were actually a total of 327 vials. The labels indicated that, besides smallpox, they contained dengue, influenza, Q fever, and rickettsia. Some of these, McKenna says, are “‘select agents,’ infectious pathogens considered serious enough — for the illness they create, or the lack of a vaccine to prevent or drugs to treat them — to be considered potential bioterror agents.”

A vial of smallpox found earlier this month at NIH. Credit: CDC

A vial of smallpox found earlier this month at NIH. Credit: CDC

The Energy and Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives held a hearing Wednesday (July 16, 2014) on the two other of this month’s revelations about infectious-organism mishandling, these in the CDC’s anthrax and influenza labs. The Congresspersons grilled CDC Director Thomas Frieden, staff from the Government Accountability Office and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services of USDA, and assorted others, including academics. McKenna posted a video of the entire session, 2 hrs 40+ min, at the bottom of this page.  She described pre-hearing statements from the actors in a different post here.

For another journalist’s account of the hearing, see Jocelyn Kaiser’s post at ScienceInsider. She says Frieden vowed to do better, but outside investigators have seen far-flung scary conditions at the CDC. A new report on CDC from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) describes “expired disinfectant, anthrax stored in unsecure freezers and labs, samples stored in Ziploc bags.”

Lab safety protocols: the Ziploc method

Ziploc bags, huh? Essential equipment for 21st century life to be sure, but how many times have you opened your refrigerator to find leaks from a not-quite-ziplocked bag congealed on shelves or dribbled into your veg bin? Chez Powledge, I can report such an incident, involving syrupy leftover baked beans, just this week. We should probably put the syrupy stuff in bowls, but at least it was a recent-enough leftover so that it was not a deadly pathogen. Yet.

At Life as an Extreme Sport, Kelly Hills also shares thoughts about the Ziploc School of Biohazard Lab Safety. But her post is mostly about the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and why it hasn’t met since 2012 even though its charter specifies that it is supposed to oversee dual-use research. (Simply put, dual-use research is an obfuscatory term for research with applications to both war and peace. Like microbes that could be turned into weapons. Smallpox. Anthrax. Etc. The ones involved in the recent incidents we’re talking about here.)

Something very odd seems to be going on at the NSABB. Half of its 23 members were fired with no warning last Sunday (July 13), McKenna says “mysteriously.” Several of the dispatched have been publicly critical of what they are calling the creation of potential pandemic pathogens (often referred to as “gain-of-function” experiments.) McKenna has details here. Jon Cohen has an account of the firings and interviews with some of the principals at ScienceInsider.

Let us hope that journalists will soon reveal what this particular disconcerting event in the general biosafety hullabaloo is all about.  And the prospect that this semi-defunct watchdog agency will develop some teeth.

Let’s destroy smallpox and not create more virulent flu

In a Monday post, McKenna interviewed D.A. Henderson, the doc who headed the triumphant international campaign to wipe out smallpox–the last case seen was in 1978–and who today co-edits the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. He advocates destroying the remaining known stocks of the smallpox virus, and the interview makes a persuasive case that he’s right.

A number of cogent others agree that variola should begone. Not everybody, though. Epidemiologist-in-training Tania Browne, writing at the Guardian’s Notes&Theories blog, thinks the recent accidents are exactly the reason for keeping smallpox around. To her, the fact that accidents will happen means that we might in future need it to deal with them–although McKenna’s Henderson interview deals explicitly with that point.

smallpox poster rsch

And then there’s flu, the subject of the gain-of-function experiments, which were attempts to increase the infectious talents of flu viruses. At microBEnet, microbiologist Jonathan Eisen praises an OpEd by his colleague Marc Lipsitch. It argued that there are several safe strategies for investigating pandemic flu; no need to create one that could kill millions if it escaped.

At his Virology Blog, Vincent Racaniello disputes Lipsitch, saying that the flu experiments were aimed at explaining aerosol transmission of viruses. “In my opinion aerosol transmission experiments on avian influenza viruses are well worth the risk. We know nothing about what controls aerosol transmission of viruses. The way to obtain this information is to take a virus that does not transmit by aerosol, derive a transmissible version, and determine why the virus has this new property.”

High time for research on marijuana’s benefits

Last Tuesday (July 15) I wrote about the new Cannabis Genome Project and the leisurely pace of research on medical applications of marijuana; the piece ran at the Genetic Literacy Project.

On Wednesday, ScienceInsider ran an interview with Ian Mitchell, a Canadian doc who blogs at Clinical Cannabis in Context. The interview was with Lizzie Wade, and they talked about the political forces arrayed against research on medical marijuana and in favor of looking only at abuse and ill effects.

Despite that, Mitchell says, research on pot is “flowering.” He points to Colorado, where pot is newly legal, and part of the state’s revenue will be going to research on its benefits. Colorado is also the base for the Cannabis Genome Project.

I don’t know how much a single state can accomplish, but I hope he’s right and I wish them well. I drew a crumb of optimism from the the review on marijuana’s dangers that the New England Journal of Medicine ran last month. The first author was Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA’s mission is to fund research on the evils of drugs.

Despite that, Volkow and her colleagues devoted the last part of the review to a rundown of what is known (or, mostly, suspected, since little is actually known) about pot’s medical benefits. Given the authors and the venue, both quintessentially a part of the research Establishment, the review seems like a significant step toward official acknowledgement that cannabis is not all bad–and possibly even an oblique endorsement of the need for research on its medical applications.

The research sluggishness is especially alarming now that medical pot is legal in nearly half the states and being actively lobbied in others. This is a vast experiment many thousands of people are conducting on themselves. But I fear that medical marijuana investigations will continue to move slowly. Researchers are up against nearly a century’s worth of anti-pot propaganda–and the very real risks to a small proportion of users, especially young ones.

Off with their heads

Evolutionary biologist Prosanta Chakrabarty tweeted, “When we said we wanted more women in Science this is not what we meant.”

science-transgend cover

Whatever the editors at Science meant to achieve by last week’s cover photo of headless transgender sex workers in Jakarta, they didn’t. In her brief not-quite-apology, Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt says the cover selection was made “after much discussion by a large group.” Soon to be enshrined in psychology and econ textbooks as one of those really bad group decisions, I imagine. No wisdom of the crowd on display here.

When it arrived in the mail chez Powledge my first thought was, Oh, dear. Science trying to seem trendy and daring and just not getting it at all. Editors who know better keeping their mouths shut because they didn’t want to seem to be bigots or sexists or homophobes or, worst of all, narrow-minded.

That was bad enough, but Science Careers Editor Jim Austin made it worse with his supercilious responses to Chakrabarty and the other women who tweeted complaints. Concluding with this jarring non sequitur: “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?”

Read the whole sorry tale in Zoë Schlanger’s Newsweek piece. Here’s Science‘s caption for the cover.  And selected blogging:

It did occur to me that the heedless headlessness may have been a bungled attempt at protecting the subjects from retaliation by Jakarta authorities. In other parts of the world, however, the decision revealed that some science media folk–even powerful ones, or maybe particularly powerful ones–remain inexplicably clueless about science’s much-talked about gender problems.

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