What's More Dishonest: Scientists Taking Corporate Cash or Mudslingers Attacking Them?

Personal attacks on a speaker, especially about their funding, are a sign that the attacker can't dispute the facts the speaker is presenting. Beware the attacker too.

What's More Dishonest: Scientists Taking Corporate Cash or Mudslingers Attacking Them?

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.

                                                   Mahatma Ghandi

Few men have virtue enough to withstand the highest bidder.

                                                  George Washington

Much has been said about FoltaGate, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the emails of University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, a scientist who advocates for genetically modified food technology. Most of the commentary has been about whether the FOIA request was a valid effort to find out if Folta had been corrupted by funding from Big Ag or just phishing for mud to sling, to undermine what Folta says. The selective way the phishers used the massive amount of information Folta and his university handed over — nothing only that Folta had received financial support from Monsanto to support his public speaking, to say the same things he’d been saying for years before he got that support — seems to answer that question. That and the fact that the FOIA request was initiated by an avowed anti-GMO group funded in part by the organic industry, operating under the disingenuous name US Right to Know.

In general, FOIA requests like this, and anything else journalists can do to find out whether someone claiming the trustworthy mantle of scientist/expert has been corrupted by funders, are a good idea. But they are being used more and more not by journalists, but by advocates on all sorts of issues (climate change, vaccines, obesity, gun control), not to honestly investigate whether someone's views have been bought and paid for, but just to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of what that person says.

This should be a Bright Red Flag to any journalist, and any reader with an open mind who isn’t already on one side or the other of any controversial issue. Mudslinging is generally what you do when what someone says, and their facts, can’t be attacked directly. It should automatically alert the journalist and reader to be skeptical not only of the person being attacked, but of the bias of the attackers. Journalists need to be a little more critical of the mudslingers, as has been the case in FoltaGate. (GMO Controversy: When Do Demands for Scientists records turn into harassment?) 

Money doesn’t always corrupt. Mostly the money finds those already saying what the funder likes. The views are honestly and sincerely held, and predate the cash.

There is another issue in FoltaGate that hasn’t been discussed too much. Of course money can corrupt, and journalists are right to dig into any source’s funding to look for such corruption. But it is simplistic, unfair, and frankly not very mature journalism, to simply say “Aha! He got money from some presumed bad actor (usually a corporation), and therefore you can’t trust anything he says.” There’s more to it than that. Money doesn’t always corrupt. Mostly the money finds those already saying what the funder likes. The views are honestly and sincerely held, and predate the cash.

Did the organics industry funding to Washington State University to support the work of Charles Benbrook turn him into an anti-GMO advocate? Of course not. His beliefs predated the money. It’s as unfair for pro-GMO advocates to attack Benbrook this way as is the hatchet job on Folta. Both of these people are sincere and committed to their views of the evidence. Their time may have been paid for. Their ideas and opinions are their own.

To be sure there are plenty of Merchants of Doubt examples of companies funding scientists and pundits and think tanks to say whatever the company wants; on tobacco, on acid rain and DDT and climate change (on climate change, read Ross Gelbspan’s books The Heat is On and Boiling Point). Of course there are many examples on the "green" side of environmental issues too — scientists and think tanks and advocacy groups funded by environmentalist sources to say only what those sources want them to say. James Hansen, a fierce advocate for action on climate change, talks in an op-ed in the Des Moines Register about the major environmental organizations that wanted to come out in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution for climate change ... but didn't because their major contributors said they'd stop funding them if they did.

But there are also many scientists and organizations that have spoken out on controversial issues, and either taken money from whatever side their views support or published something in conjunction with that side with absolutely no money changing hands, where the sincerely held views came first, and the contact from the other side came second. Dr. Paul Offit on childhood vaccines. Calestous Juma on GMOs. Climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen. The views are sincere. The people are honest. They just offer views, or facts, that the other side doesn’t like, or can’t dispute. So the other side throws mud at the person/organization, hoping to undermine the credibility of what these people/organizations say.

The mudslinging makes a lot of scientists leery to speak out. It muzzles some of the voices we need to hear from, to learn from, if we’re going to make informed choices about complicated issues.

This mudslinging is harmful in many ways. It worsens the polarization around the issue, which makes progress tougher to achieve. GMO opponents jumped all over Folta (with some really nasty personal stuff), while the pro-GMO advocates attacked the credibility and honesty of the journalists who broke the Folta story/hatchet job.

It makes funders leery of supporting work that could move these heated issues forward. The Gates Foundation gets huge pressure for funding honest independent research into GMOs as a way to help feed billions of people. The Rockefeller Foundation stopped funding GMO work after relentless pressure on their board from environmentalist/GMO opponents (and all Rockefeller was trying to do was open a dialogue on the issue, funding both sides.)

The mudslinging makes a lot of scientists leery to speak out. It muzzles some of the voices we need to hear from, to learn from, if we’re going to make informed choices about complicated issues.

And it lures journalists toward an easy story angle that distracts them from reporting on the substantive factual questions the public needs to understand to make more fully informed decisions about the issue itself.

So, yay for digging into and reporting on any source’s funding. But boo for the naïve assumption that journalists, and you and I, make that any funding from any suspect source automatically makes everything someone says suspect. Advocates will continue to use this ad hominem mudslinging to attack their opponents. We can't expect that to change. But we can demand that our journalists provide the public a more mature analysis of whose positions seem to be honest and whose facts seem to be well-supported by the evidence, regardless of who paid the speaker to speak out.  

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David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. He runs a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk and was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which he was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.

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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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