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April 5, 2010
Sickened by an Engineered Virus?
What to make of the case of Becky McClain? She's a former Pfizer scientist who sued the company, claiming that she had been injured by exposure to engineered biological materials at work. She's just won her case in court, although Pfizer may well appeal the verdict. It's important to note that her most damaging claim, that the company engaged in willful misconduct, was thrown out at the beginning. The jury found that Pfizer had violated whistleblower laws and wrongfully terminated McClain as an employee.
But what I'd most like to know is whether the claim at the core of her case is true, and I don't think anyone knows that yet. McClain says that she was exposed to embryonic stem cells and to various engineered lentiviruses (due to poor lab technique on the part of co-workers, if I'm following the story correctly), and that this gave her a chronic, debilitating condition that has led to intermittent paralysis. More specifically, the theory that I've seen her legal team floating is that the lentivirus caused her tissues to express a new potassium channel, and that she has improved after taking "massive doses" of potassium. (Query: how massive are we talking here?).
Now, that's a potentially alarming thing. But that should also be potentially subject to scientific proof. This trial didn't address any of these issues, and McClain has been unable to get any traction with the court system or with OSHA on these claims. Looking around the internet, you find that some people are convinced that this is a cover-up, but (having seen OSHA in action) I'm more likely to think that if you can't get them to bite, then you probably don't have much for them to get their teeth into. I also note that the symptoms that have been described in this case are similar to many that have been ascribed in the past to psychosomatic illness. I can't say that that's what's going on here, of course, but it does complicate the issue.
The other problem I have is that such human illness from a biotech viral vector is actually a very rare event, with every case that I can think of being a deliberate attempt at gene therapy. Industry scientists don't work with human-infectious viruses without good cause, but there's still an awful lot of work that goes on with agents that most certainly can infect people (hepatitis and so on). And although I'm sure that there have been cases (accidental needle sticks and the like), I don't know of any research infections with wild-type viruses, much less engineered ones.
Well, we may yet hear more about this, and I'll rethink the issue if more information becomes available. But for now, I have to say, whatever the other issues in the case, I'm inclined to doubt the engineered-viral-infection part of this story.
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