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As I gazed out over the undulating ocean I could feel a twinge of phantom pain in my lost leg, it always twinges so when the beast is near. Perhaps some part of it’s spirit was not cleaved so sharply from my body, and it can sense its physical counterpart is close and yearns to be reunited again. Perhaps it hungers for revenge against the monster. Perhaps it is a prosthetic it desires, carved out perhaps from the fleshy appendages of the monster itself, a leg for a leg if you will. The beast today is nowhere to be seen, but still I stand and ruminate on such matters of animal to human transplantation.

Australia, my home port, decided on Thursday to lift their ban on animal to human transplantation clinical trials and join countries such as New Zealand and the USA. The ban was started five years ago due to concerns diseases could spread from animals to humans during transplant, but the evidence now shows that this is an unlikely outcome and the possible benefits (curing diabetes, an alternative to stem cells) outweigh the possible dangers.

Pig with Mask

Animal diseases can rarely enter humans, because we have different cells and physiology. A microbe which can happily infect a cat is stumped when it comes to infecting a human (where’s the tail? Where the hell am I?) and the further the animal gets from a human the less likely they are to cross-infect (worm microbes are unlikely to jump to humans.)

However there are some exceptions. The flu is a big one, owing to the fact that it has eight pieces of RNA that are packaged into a single virus particle, and if an animal (usually a pig or a bird) catches both human flu and pig/bird flu at the same time, and both kinds infect the same cell, there can be mistakes in packaging that creates a new strain of virus UNLIKE ANYTHING WE’VE SEEN BEFORE. It’s called an antigenic shift, and if the packaging creates something that is very good at infecting humans then we’re in trouble. Our immune system doesn’t like being confronted with weird things. Other exceptions include HIV which swapped from monkeys to humans, and Yersinia pestis which can infect rats and humans and caused the Black Plague.

Pandemic flu, HIV, the black plague… microbes may not jump animal to human often, but when they do the results can be severe. Perhaps this is why Jacqueline Dalziell had this to say: “The public, who had no say in this discussion whatsoever, will be the first to be directly affected if a new pandemic like AIDS … is introduced into Australia through the ban being lifted,” she said. “The whole of Australia is currently taking part in an experiment without their consent.”

On the other hand, perhaps it is because she is project co-ordinator for Animal Liberation and has other reasons against the decision. I disagree with the statement anyway, asking the general public what they think of the subject is a bit ridiculous, most people only know what they hear from the media and we all know what sensationalist bs that can be (if you don’t, check out Bad Science), an effort to educate people before the vote would probably be limited to a pissy brochure about the risks and benefits which most people wouldn’t bother reading anyway.

Not that I have a negative view on the public and science, I know you my fair readers are interested and educated on the science world, and I’m a science communicator at heart. But people, there’s a reason to do ENQUIRIES to make an INFORMED decision rather than tossing a question like this to the masses and saying “well this way if it goes bad, at least we can say they voted for it.” Whatever.