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Scientists evaluate ethics behind flu research

Anthropology Professor Celia Lowe (center) presents at the "Flu Forum: The Ethics and Politics of Influenza Research" held on Feb. 8. 

Photo by Joshua Bessex

When researchers from the Netherlands announced they’d created a transmissible flu virus, it once again sparked debate surrounding the ethics of flu research.

Last Friday, the UW hosted a forum evaluating this topic in the context of global, political, and economic inequalities. Specifically, the forum focused on whether or not to conduct research with dangerous substances, the risks surrounding such research, and scientists’ responsibilities in communicating those risks to the public. The forum continued Monday with various speakers.

The forum is part of Biological Futures in a Globalized World (BFGW), a cluster of projects hosted by the Simpson Center for the Humanities in partnership with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Program on Values in Society at the UW.

“[We want] to bring together networks [of researchers] who don’t normally work together and to talk about issues,” said Alison Wylie, a UW professor and the director of BFGW.

In light of the recent engineering of a transmissible mutant H5N1 virus, commonly known as the Bird Flu, by the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the researchers discussed the ethical issues surrounding biomedical research.

UW geography professor Matthew Sparke, who moderated the forum, said the discussion was a step toward solving some of the ethical issues.

The H5N1 epidemic was discussed at great length during the forum. Wylie said that strain of the flu has been a prevalent issue in pathogenic flu research.

“With H5N1, that’s been breaking news in the last year as [BFGW] has unfolded,” Wylie said. “It’s become a focus because it’s been a really topical issue and we can think and talk about a range of issues that we care about in terms of that case.”

Speakers of the forum panel include University of Minnesota biologist Rob Wallace, UW anthropology professor Celia Lowe, virologist Jesse Bloom, and research fellow Gaymon Bennett from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The second part of the forum on Monday featured a talk by Wallace about the importance of communication and analysis of the flu virus across different disciplines.

Wylie said the forums are geared more toward graduate students, although undergraduate students were also encouraged to join in the conversation.

“We’re very much interested in reaching out to students,” Wylie said. “Especially graduate students but also undergraduate students in the sciences and medical fields, because they’re doing the primary research that this [issue] is about.”

Elizabeth Miao, a senior pursuing a double degree in anthropology and biology, said the forum intrigued her not only because it relates to the field she is interested in, but also because it provided a chance for researchers to talk about the complexities surrounding flu research.

“Having to go see what all of these scientists and professors and academia have to say, in general I think is pretty insightful on how I can approach different researches on my own in the future,” Miao said. “Hearing the opinions right now is really important to eventually build ways to refrain and restructure the system at hand.”

Reach reporter Imana Gunawan at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @imanafg

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