An Unethically Sourced Virus?

02-23-2020Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

We often associate Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Halloween or scary films. But it is also a cautionary tale about the limits of science and the intersection of research and ethics. As Frankenstein demonstrated, in the name of medical research you can unleash something for which you can not predict the consequences. Recently evidence is coming to light that the particular strain of the coronavirus was bioengineered in China as part of research for immunotherapy or vaccines but it was inadvertently released from a Lab in Wuhan. Much like the Africanized honey bees, aka “killer bees” that were released by a lab in Brazil and have made their way up to North American and are such a pest in Arizona, this version of the coronavirus may have been released through sloppy lab protocols.

One of the reasons Science needs to be informed by ethics is just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Bioethics pioneer Paul Ramsey once noted that for a man of serious conscience, “there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do." Even good intentions can cause much damage if they are not ethically guided. While in this case it doesn't seem like unethical means were employed during the research, the case can be made that the possible negative side effects far outweigh any bene!ts. At the very minimum Research Labs must have protocols and procedures in place that virtually eliminate the possibility of human error or malfeasance.

The Church’s teaching on ethics in research and medicine is pretty substantial. For instance, the Church teaches it is morally unacceptable to use material that was illicitly obtained to be used for research. So, an organ involuntarily harvested from a prisoner should not be used for transplantation or the use of fetal tissue remains from an abortion should not be used to produce vaccines. There is also the problem of money in research. How much does the quest for funding undermine the integrity of research? We more recently see the politicization of science in which research conclusions are developed not based on the clinical evidence but on a politically favored outcome, i.e. transgender treatment. The basic principle is that research and medicine should not use immoral or unethical means to obtain a good end. The consequences of cooperating with evil are spiritually, morally and socially corrupting to individuals and a society. Dr. Martin Luther King put it this way: "Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals." Science should not set the agenda, ethically informed humans should.

Now in the meantime we might be tempted to think that the effects of the virus are over there in China. So far, our Public Health Departments are doing a good job of trying to limit our exposure. But even if the virus does not affect us in the US in terms of health it will affect us in other ways. We are already seeing how the virus has affected the Cruise Ship industry and the Airlines but we should be prepared for more disruptions in other sectors. Hopefully they will be inconveniences and not much more.

But since so much of the manufacturing of goods moved to China, we can expect shortages of this or that. But the main one to watch is medications. Almost all of our medicines or the raw materials for medicines are not made in the US and most are made in China. Since the virus China has shutdown much of its manufacturing and that will impact us. Things like ibuprofen, generic drugs, cough syrups, antacids, band-aids, gauze, insulin needles, to name a few, all may be in short supply at some point. Europe is already feeling the squeeze.

The interconnectedness of us all should be very apparent. And yet, when we deny that, we expose ourselves to real consequences. In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus wrote:

“In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves: in other words, they were humanists, they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence is not a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it does not pass away, and from one bad dream to the other, it is men who pass away.”

So, we find ourselves not only connected economically, socially, ethically but spiritually as well. Which means for good or ill what one does affects the other. Camus wrote, “what’s true of all the evils in the world, is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.” May this be one of those times.

Love,

Fr. John B.

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