The biologists Scott Nuismer and James Bull generated fresh media attention to self-spreading vaccines over the summer after publishing an article in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. But the subsequent reporting on the topic gives short shrift to the potentially significant downsides to releasing self-spreading vaccines into the environment. Self-spreading vaccines could indeed entail serious risks, and the prospect of using them raises challenging questions. Who decides, for instance, where and when a vaccine should be released? Once released, scientists will no longer be in control of the virus. It could mutate, as viruses naturally do. It may jump species. It will cross borders. There will be unexpected outcomes and unintended consequences. There always are. While it may turn out to be technically feasible to fight emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19, AIDS, Ebola, and Zika with self-spreading viruses, and while the benefits may be significant, how does one weigh those benefits against what may be even greater risks?
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