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Public Health Aspects

The current debate over recombinant DNA illustrates the concern that many persons feel about the risk of a medical experiment affecting the health of other patients or the outside community. This fear is not unreasonable. There have been several accidents involving infectious agents that led to the illness or death of persons totally removed from the research. Any physician working with known infectious agents must appreciate the substantial legal liability that would accompany the infection of someone in the community. This is particularly true of researchers working with recombinant DNA research and may be panicked by the hint of an accident. Thus, researchers and their institution must be very sensitive to the community's perception as well as laboratory safety precautions.

The adverse consequences of an incident involving infectious agents or recombinant DNA go beyond monetary damages. The political subdivision where the research is being carried out has the authority to stop all such research and demand that all cultures be destroyed. This power derives from "police powers," the same powers that allow government inspection of restaurants and treatment of venereal disease. This is not an empty exercise of power that can be defeated in the courts. The health department and the local police force could close down the institution and destroy the experiments while the institution sought to resolve this in court. Thus, it is clearly better for the institution to be cooperative with local health officials than to risk open conflict. This is especially important for proprietary firms whose economic well-being could be wrecked by a prolonged dispute with a local health department.

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