An animal disease called pseudorabies has reached epidemic proportions among the nation's herds of swine. The disease, caused by a herpes-like virus, is almost always fatal in pigs, so the effect on the food supply is serious and growing.
In response, Biologics Corp. of Omaha has produced a vaccine called Omnivac-PRV. What's interesting about this vaccine is that it is made by genetic engineering. A piece of a gene of the virus that enables it to reproduce is snipped out, rendering the virus harmless.
Earlier pseudorabies vaccines have been created by growing the virus in chick cells for generations until, by mutation, some of it became weaker--too weak to cause the disease. This method of producing vaccine was slow, inefficient and costly, and produced too little of the desired material. Snipping out a gene achieves the same result, but is a vastly superior technique.
In January, after the new vaccine was shown to be highly effective and safe in tests in four states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture licensed Biologics to market it. Omnivac became the first live product of genetic engineering licensed for use in the environment.
The potential benefits of this vaccine and of others like it are incalculable. The potential risks have been shown to be non-existent.
Nonetheless, earlier this month the Department of Agriculture suspended Biologics' license to sell the vaccine because Jeremy Rifkin, the scourgeof biotechnology, complained about procedures, environmental-impact statements and the like. None of his objections went to the merits. There is still no suggestion of harm from Omnivac.
This is the same Rifkin who has single-handedly stymied the testing of genetically altered bacteria on plants, even though the bacteria have the promise of reducing frost damage and increasing crop yields. For years Rifkin has cleverly used the courts and the regulatory process to halt one of the most significant scientific advances of our time.
Who is this Rifkin, and what are his credentials? He has a long history of opposing things, but as to credentials, he has none. Perhaps you remember Rifkin as the author of "Entropy" (Viking: 1980), which a Los Angeles Times reviewer described as "flagrant flimflam" and "logical garbage."Or perhaps you remember him as the author of "Algeny" (Viking: 1983), described in our Book Review as "a shameless potpourri of misinformation and faulty logic."
Somehow this man has emerged as the single most influential person in the country on genetic engineering. He has finally found an issue that he can ride. Unfortunately for the rest of us, it's the wrong one. Knowledgeable scientists (Rifkin is neither) were right to worry about the potential harm of genetic engineering more than a decade ago. The government was right to insist that precautions be taken. Careful tests were done and redone. Rifkin's scenario of disaster from an unleashed new organism is groundless.
Genetic engineering is an important new technology. It is time to thank Jeremy Rifkin for his interest and show him the door. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the Agriculture Department will reconsider the suspended license of Omnivac on Tuesday. The license should be reinstated without delay, and the sale and use of this new vaccine should resume. The only danger to humanity lies in continuing to listen to Rifkin.