Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 27, 2017

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: pixabay

Influenza

An Arms Race with Nature

H7N9, a new bird flu emerging in China, has infected roughly 1,500 people and killed 40% of them. The virus is contracted directly from infected birds but is not yet easily transmissible between humans, however researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have evidence H7N9 could potentially become transmissible between humans fairly easily. They examined a fragment of the virus that interacts with receptors on animal cells to gain entrance, and identified three minor mutations that could cause the fragment to shift from preferentially entering avian cells to preferentially entering human cells. If these mutations were to occur, it could rapidly result in a pandemic.

Tests in a viral fragment do not prove functionality in the intact virus; that would require mutating H7N9 itself. A 2014 moratorium on mutating three types of viruses (SARS, MERS, influenza) to more dangerous forms is expected to lift when the Department of Health and Human Services finishes current work drafting a new policy establishing reviews designed to assess benefit/risk ratios before funding research.

The subject is divisive, even among scientists in the field. Stanford researcher David Relman says he would support efforts to test mutations in a weakened strain of flu, but not in the H7N9 virus.  Bioterrorism expert Thomas Inglesby opposes increasing the contagious lethality of a virus, and opposes publishing such procedures due to concern that less benevolent actors would be enabled to replicate the process. NIH funded researcher, Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands, whose alteration of H5N1 to become highly contagious between ferrets (the animal model for humans) in 2011 influenced the moratorium, believes examining dangerous virus mutations in a controlled lab environment is important to identify potential pandemic viruses.

Many of these topics were discussed at the recent Immunology and Evolution of Influenza Symposium, and are sure to be a hot topic at the July 16 – 19 Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance meeting. With policy guidance needed on benefit/risk, potentially safer models, security, and publication limitations, the new HHS policy will be critical. (Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR)

Conservation

Modeling with Dough – Pick your Species

The Supreme Court found the Endangered Species Act was “intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction—whatever the cost.” Today, in light of the cost, conservation policy makers are being invited to triage species extinctions. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives recently met with ecologist Dr. Leah Gerber to discuss her proposed use of an algorithm guiding conservation funding.

A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Gerber says her model suggests that defunding “costly failures,” including the spotted owl, golden-cheeked warbler and gopher tortoise, could help save about 180 other species. Gerber says policy makers may opt to continue to support species that her algorithm rejects, as was done for the koala in Australia where algorithm triage has been used. In this case, a popularity contest may determine who lives and who goes extinct.

Details of the algorithm are not explicit, but Dr. Gerber’s recent publication in PNAS is a straightforward return-on-investment calculation analyzing the mathematical relationship between funds requested, spent, and species success or decline.  Gerber finds “the cost–success curve is convex; funding surpluses were common for the species least likely and most likely to recover” so it’s not simply ‘money in – species out’. Other factors – endemism, keystone status, level of species risk – are also important, though Gerber acknowledges they are not currently included.

While proponents call use of the equation “doing the best you can with what you have,” lack of data on its predictive validity make it a frightening policy tool governing something as permanent as species extinction. What if region affects costs, population growth is slower in species reaching sexual maturity later, a break-through in understanding one species’ requirements is just around the corner or we haven’t yet discovered the significance of the niche occupied by another species? What if business or political interests conflict with a species’ needs? What if the algorithm developer seeks intellectual property legal status, as is happening now with a proprietary algorithm used in parole and sentencing situations? Algorithms impacting public policy should be vetted by multiple experts in germane disciplines, validated, and kept publicly accessible for healthy scrutiny. (Sharon Bernstein, Reuters)

 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 27, 2017 at 11:42 am

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