By: Bethanie L. Morrison, Ph.D.
Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.
Using experimental drugs and vaccines against Ebola is ethical, WHO panel says
A 12-member World Health Organization (WHO) ethics panel has approved the use of experimental drugs to combat the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the worst outbreak on record. Panelists and other disease experts initially worried that testing the experimental drugs in rural Africa may be seen as racist, yet after seeing the positive results of the experimental ZMapp on two Americans infected with the Ebola virus, they have put those concerns aside. While agreeing that the compassionate use of experimental therapeutics is warranted in this situation is a huge hurdle that had to be overcome, there are many more policy considerations that will be up for discussion at the next convening of ethics panel members in Geneva at the end of the month. Some of these roadblocks include whether to distribute the therapeutics to health care workers first, which authority makes the decisions about individual patient treatment and, most importantly, the fact that the experimental drugs in discussion are only available in limited quantities. “Much more ethical work needs to be done to create a sound infrastructure for compassionate use in humanitarian emergencies,” wrote Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. (Kai Kupferschmidt)
Diplomacy, Defense, and Technology
Pentagon’s breakthrough human brain-inspired computer chip to power drones
Researchers at the Pentagon, as part of the Defense Advances Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have created a computer chip inspired by the synapses of the human brain. The chip, which contains over 5 billion transistors and more than 250 million life-like “synapses,” requires only a fraction of the electricity typically required to power commercially available computer chips. The decrease in energy requirements for the chip will make it much easier for military field use. In addition, the chip is powerful enough to “give unmanned aircraft or robotic ground systems with limited power budgets a more refined perception of the environment,” says Gill Pratt, the DARPA program manager. This will take some of the burden off of system operators as drones should be able to distinguish threats more accurately. Ultimately the development of this chip will allow for a much wider range of portable computing applications used for military and defense. (Douglas Ernst)
Ebola May Pose Little Threat to U.S., but It Looms Large on Twitter
Ebola is trending on Twitter. This fact has social scientists and biomedical scientists on high alert for completely different reasons, both of which converge on the implications of appropriate scientific communication. Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has found that heightened emotions increase story sharing, regardless of the truth. While Ebola remains a very rare disease, the emotions that its horrific symptoms stir up in the general public are very strong, enticing people to share stories regardless of the validity of their sources or the impact that spreading potentially false information may have on people and policy makers. People want to be more a part of the conversation and be “in the know” than a part of the alternative. While strong emotional issues are great for the social media model of marketing, they may not have the same impact on the biomedical research community who now has to spend countless amounts of time and resources explaining why the Ebola virus is not one to be concerned with in day to day living. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing; as it has pushed people like Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to release fact sheets about Ebola and other “emerging threats.” (Joshua A. Krisch)
Have an interesting science policy link? Share it in the comments!