This past week, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), revealed that they have discovered containers of smallpox vials in a cold storage room at the Maryland National Institute of Health. This is big (and scary) news in the health field because this National Institute of Health is unauthorized to carry such an infectious disease. The smallpox disease is so dangerous and deadly that nations around the globe have agreed to a mandate that states that only two labs in the world are allowed to possess it. Will human error cause the next global pandemic?
Authorities are not sure why the smallpox vials were in the Maryland facility, and experts were not sure how the smallpox avoided detection for such a long time. This is coming off the heels of a previous CDC announcement in which they revealed that another protocol breach may have resulted in 75 CDC employees being accidentally exposed to anthrax.
The good news is that neither incident has reported any inadvertent exposures to the infections during both accidental events. The bad news is that both incidents have exposed potential hazards and security holes in even the most safe health facilities and labs across the globe.
Many researchers have reported that Americans are quite lucky that accidental exposures and health “slip-ups” like these did not happen with a virus like the flu, but the discovery of the unchecked smallpox virus in Maryland has many asking: will human error cause the next global pandemic? In 1918, there was a strain of influenza that killed around 50 million people. That 1918 strain of the flu, and some other strains as well, are currently being studied and researched in medical research labs in the United States and in various facilities around the world. If any of those labs make a mistake or have a slip-up, the results could be deadly and disastrous.
Current detractors of this type of research are not saying that researching dangerous pathogens is not important – these types of experiments can often provide valuable insight into combating such diseases – but they are saying that the rationale that is used to replicate these dangerous pathogens does not necessarily justify the risk that is taken by creating them.
They mention how scientists have been able to create the vaccines for these pathogens without having to recreate the viruses themselves, meaning that developing new strains of the pathogen is not necessary for protection; and as a result, people in the United States and around the globe will be able rest with a lot more at ease at night,
One of the biggest concerns amongst detractors of the studies is a form of research called “gain of function” studies. In this type of study, researchers and scientists will take a strain of a deadly pathogen that humans do not have immunity to yet and make them even more contagious in an effort to find a vaccine and to see how it transfers itself to mammals. Currently, “gain of function” studies are going on in the Netherlands and in the state of Wisconsin.
Mistakes and slip-ups in medical labs are not just hypothetical situations; they have happened before. Most recently, it happened in 1977 when the H1N1 virus escaped from a lab in China, and an outbreak in China and Russia ensued.
Basic human error can waltz pass even the most strict of security and safety protocols. Yes, it is very unlikely to happen, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. After the smallpox discovery, many are wondering if human error could cause the next global pandemic. If an outbreak like this does happen, humans will be asking themselves, “Was it worth it?”