Steven Salzburg throws virology under the bus in favor of fearmongering sensationalism

Oh Forbes. I’m disappointed in you. I’ve seen some good articles lately in Forbes dealing with science (see update below), like this one, by Emily Willingham. But then yesterday they published Scientists Will Create a Deadly New Flu Strain, Just to Prove They Can, by Steven Salzburg.

Salzburg discusses past and future research led by Ron Fouchier, on the influenza virus:

Fouchier is the same scientist who, two years ago, adapted the highly pathogenic H5N1 flu strain so that it could be passed from human to human, which it cannot do in its natural form.  The resulting outcry delayed publication of his paper, but it eventually did appear.

Now they want to do the same thing, and much more, with the new H7N9 influenza virus, which has killed 43 people in China to date, and which epidemiologists are tracking with great concern.

madscientist

photo by Recovering Vagabond on flickr

 

Salzburg’s brash screed casts Fouchier and his colleagues as careless, ego-driven mad-scientists. Movie villians with no care for the world, only for their cold-hard egos and personal advancement. It casts the research as frivolous and unnecessary. But I disagree, and so do the virologists at TWiV.

Okay. So here’s the thing. If there’s a chance that an influenza virus can form that is as dangerous as the bird flu, but as transmissible as H1N1 is in humans, it’s possible that this combo will eventually emerge naturally. The research of Fouchier and other virologists in this vein, is an attempt to preempt this possibility by trying to discover that combo before it happens. If they managed to make such a combo of flu genes and create this virus, we would know the possibility exists. Not only that, but we could start working on vaccines.

Salzburg suggests that this won’t advance our position against influenza because Fouchier’s team is not equipped to work on vaccines… or something:

Fouchier and his colleagues can’t do surveillance, nor do they work on vaccine development.  They have laboratories where they can engineer the flu virus to make new strains, so that’s what they want to do.

Salzburg should know how science works. They don’t work on vaccine development. So what? So they pass their research on to someone who does when they’re done. Is Salzburg making some kind of elaborate joke here that I’m not getting?

This is not some kind of vanity project. Or careless roller-coaster ride into the maw of doom, as Salzburg seems to suggest. Salzburg, as a scientist (although a bioinformatics professor, not a virologist or epidemiologist) should know better than to stoke public fears while throwing other scientists under the bus. It is my opinion that someone is being dangerously irresponsible here in the pursuit of vanity and that’s Salzburg himself.

 UPDATE:

Apparently I was ignorant about how this part of the Forbes site works. I’ve been told that pretty much anyone can make themselves a blog on it, and that’s what we’re looking at here. So… Forbes doesn’t have much to do with this writing and no need to mix them up in it, but everything else I said about this article stands.

 

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