Scientists Under Investigation In Italian Xylella Outbreak

Scientific American has reported that a formal investigation is underway concerning nine scientists and one public official concerning an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa in and around Puglia, Italy.  The outbreak (first noted in 2013) has affected olive trees in the area, and efforts to contain the outbreak have prompted both protests from activists and investigation from the European Union.

The case involving Italian seismologists and the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009 was long and complicated, so I already expected that the investigation into these scientists – suspected of introducing and/or allowing the spread of the Xylella strain – would be a challenge to follow.  Now that the EU is involved, I think a long, complicated legal case is assured.

The scientists are under suspicion for introducing the strain because of a 2010 training course where a strain of Xylella was used.  That claim is being refuted because the strain considered the cause of the outbreak is distinct from the Californian variety used at the course.

Some of the criticism is prompted in part due to the measures the scientists are calling for in order to combat the strain.  Several parties object to the destruction of trees (many of them quite old) and the use of pesticides in the area.  The prosecutors in the case have called for a halt to such measures when they announced the formal investigation.  Aside from placing the scientists under suspicion of causing the outbreak (either intentionally or through neglect), it has been contended that the actual cause of the outbreak is not the Xylella, but a fungus.

The European Union is involved because of concerns over the possible spread of the pathogen to other countries.  As part of EU rules, Italy is obligated to develop and implement a containment plan.  However, some of the measures have been blocked by the courts, and it is possible that the contentions against the scientists are another means of fighting against the EU rules.

I am concerned that the length of any Italian court proceeding may make it difficult to effectively address the outbreak.  With the final appeals of the L’Aquila case stretching things out to at least six years following the 2009 quake, there may be at least another three years before the Italian courts adjudicate the matter (regardless of how the EU enforcement and judicial mechanisms may act).  Perhaps the outbreak can be contained in time, but it’s tough to see this case as helping.

Nebraska Puts Hold On Purchases Of Lethal Injection Drugs

Last week the governor of Nebraska announced that he would stop attempting to import execution drugs – and conduct executions – until the state votes on a repeal of the death penalty.  That repeal was passed by the Nebraska legislature in May, and the governor’s veto was overridden.  However, enough signatures were gathered to put the matter to a vote of the people, and the rationale behind the governor’s statement is to wait for the people to express their official opinion.

However, earlier this year the governor was in a bit of a hurry to deal with the inmates remaining on the state’s death row following the passage of the bill (but before its implementation).  So at least some of the governor’s reasoning has changed since June.

This decision probably reflects the continued difficulty of obtaining sufficient quantities of the needed drugs.  Efforts to import drugs purchased from India failed in August due to action by the Food and Drug Administration, and an attempt to purchase drugs from a domestic source in October also failed.  So the governor can publicly defer to public will, even as private failures makes a promise to not obtain execution drugs easy to keep.

Nebraska will vote on the death penalty repeal in November 2016.

Italian Seismologists’ Convictions Remain Overturned

Following a two-day hearing, the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation has affirmed the decision of a lower court to overturn the convictions of six Italian seismologists (H/T ScienceInsider).  They were convicted (along with a public official) back in 2012 based on actions taken right before a serious earthquake in L’Aquila.

Once again, I am not a lawyer, nor an Italian.  I’m certainly not an Italian lawyer, nor a seismologist.

The judgment in the original trial considered the scientists guilty of not discharging their duties under the law as part of an advisory committee.  The judges in the local appellate court overturned the conviction in part because they felt the judge should have focused on the scientific quality of their analyses.  This rationale was contested in the Cassation court because the scientists on the panel did not object to the claim that previous tremors had discharged energy in the area, thereby reducing the possibility of future quakes.

However, as is often the case at the appellate level, the deliberations focused on the legal analysis applied in the cases, and not the level of scientific analysis.  (If you’re confused yet, you’re not alone).  In that analysis, the court found that only the public official should have been convicted because he reassured the public prior to the advisory committee meeting.  The scientists’ statements were considered by the appellate court to be neutral and not sufficient support for the official’s reassurances of a lower chance of tremors.

In related news, the manslaughter trial for another public official connected to the L’Aquila earthquake was delayed until next March.

The Supremes Wax Hypothetical On Executions, May End Up Moot

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments in Glossip v. Gross, a case brought by condemned men in Oklahoma objecting to its method of capital punishment.  The argument in this case hinges on the state’s use of midazolam as the sedative in the three-drug cocktail of anesthestic, paralytic and a drug to stop the heart.  Death penalty opponents argue that the drug does not adequately sedate the condemned inmate, allowing them to suffer sufficient pain from the subsequent drugs to qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

While it is rarely a guarantee that oral arguments indicate exactly how the justices will rule, it can be suggestive.  Reports from the Court indicate that the justices questions focused primarily on two threads.  The liberal justices were concerned about the effects of midazolam, while four of the conservative justices focused on what they consider a judicial end around.  As I’ve tracked on this blog, manufacturers and others have put drugs used in executions out of reach of states, forcing them to choose alternative drugs, and in some cases expand their execution options.

The justices’ questions about these tactics suggest they are upset at their decisions (about the Constitutionality of the death penalty) being subverted by what could be seen as technical, rather than political, means.  While I’d argue that the campaign to get execution drugs pulled is definitely political, I can see where the justices that support the death penalty see this effort as a turf battle.

Again, the oral arguments are more of a guide than a predictor of the court’s vote (much less the specifics of its opinions).  But it would seem that this case is unlikely to change the status of the death penalty.  And while some justices object to the movement to make certain drugs inaccessible for executions, there is little they can do.  In March an Illinois manufacturer of midazolam requested the State of Oklahoma return its supply of the drug (for a refund, of course).  The company, Akron Pharmaceuticals, will also take steps to make sure its supplies of midazolam and hydromorphone (a narcotic pain reliever some states have expressed interest in using) cannot be used for executions.  Similar letters have been sent to other states.  Should other manufacturers follow suit, it may not matter what the Court says when it rules in this case.

Oklahoma Acts To Innovate – In Executions

On Friday the Governor of Oklahoma signed into law a bill that would establish nitrogen-induced hypoxia as a means of executing prisoners, should circumstances prevent lethal injection from being used. The bill does not get into specifics, it simply modifies the existing law on the order of preference for methods of execution (Oklahoma now has four).  The law would take effect November 1, 2015.  Oklahoma does not currently have any executions scheduled, and the executions of three men are currently stayed pending a Supreme Court case.

While gas chambers have been used for executions in the United States (inmates in three states still have the option of death by gas), the active gas used to suffocate the condemned was never nitrogen.  The general principle is the same, a gas is pumped into a sealed chamber, and the condemned dies after breathing it.  Hydrogen cyanide was the most common gas used in the United States for executions, and it is considered a chemical warfare agent.  Using nitrogen for execution could be very different as it is not toxic, and could cause much less pain and suffering for the condemned.  It would likely be easier to use than hydrogen cyanide.

But it is an untested method.  Oklahoma has no experience with a gas chamber, and with its challenges in administering lethal injections, I can understand why some would doubt the state’s ability to effectively innovate in executions.  However, should the Supreme Court rule against the state’s lethal injection protocols later this year, Oklahoma may well set an example for other states seeking ways around the roadblocks to lethal injection.

Sidebar – While the Supreme Court case on Oklahoma’s methods may make this moot, the federal death penalty may force a more definitive legal stance on lethal injection.  The federal government’s preferred method of execution defers to the state in which the crime took place.  Should there be no death penalty in that state, the judge must choose a state with a death penalty to carry out the execution.  While this typically means lethal injection, it is plausible that the recent turmoil in the states may affect how the federal government conducts its executions.  However, no federal execution has been carried out since 2003, and none are scheduled at the time of this writing.

Second Lawsuit Filed Over Guatemalan STD Experiments

Following the disclosure in 2010 that several Guatemalans were exposed to sexually transmitted diseases without their consent, several parties initiated a class action lawsuit against the government.  That lawsuit was eventually dismissed over the inability to sue the U.S. over actions conducted in another country.  For details on the experiments, consult the report from The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

The plaintiffs have not given up, yesterday they filed suit against Johns Hopkins University for its role in the exposures.  Several Johns Hopkins researchers held positions in panels that reviewed federal funding for the studies at issue in the suit.  Other defendants include the Rockefeller Foundation and Bristol-Meyers Squibb.

The suit is filed against these defendants apparently due to the affiliation several officials involved in the exposures had with the named institutions (or in the case of Bristol-Meyers Squibb, its predecessor companies).  Both Johns Hopkins and The Rockefeller Foundation have denied that their institutions were involved in the experiments.  Bristol-Meyers Squibb officials have declined to comment as of this writing.  The suit alleges that the experiments were used as clinical trials for the predecessor companies’ products.

With the dismissal of the previous lawsuit, it is not clear that the current matter will be any more successful.  Arguably the plaintiff’s case here will be harder, as holding an institutional affiliation will not likely be sufficient to demonstrate the institution was responsible for the conduct of particular individuals working for other organizations.

Gray Matters Volume 2 Seeks To Counter Hype With Discussion

Today the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released the second volume of its Gray Matters report, the ninth report by this commission.  The report was requested by the President following the announcement of the BRAIN Initiative.  He requested that the Commission identify a set of core ethical standards to influence neuroscience research and to address some of the debates emerging from applications of that research.

Volume One, released in May 2014, focused on how to fully integrate ethics into neuroscience research throughout the research cycle.  Volume Two concerns ethics in applications of neuroscience research, with an emphasis on three topics that have attracted some level of debate: cognitive enhancement, the capacity of a being to consent (to research conducted on them), and neuroscience in the law.  Through these cases the Commission wanted to tease out relevant ethical considerations and related tensions brought out by the potential impacts of these technologies.

There are fourteen main recommendations in the report:

Prioritize Existing Strategies to Maintain and Improve Neural Health

Continue to examine and develop existing tools and techniques for brain health

Prioritize Treatment of Neurological Disorders
As with the previous recommendation, it would be valuable to focus on existing means of addressing neurological disorders and working to improve them.

Study Novel Neural Modifiers to Augment or Enhance Neural Function
Existing research in this area is limited and inconclusive.
Ensure Equitable Access to Novel Neural Modifiers to Augment or Enhance Neural Function

Access to cognitive enhancements will need to be handled carefully to avoid exacerbating societal inequities (think the stratified societies of the film Elysium or the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders“).

Create Guidance About the Use of Neural Modifiers
Professional societies and expert groups need to develop guidance for health care providers that receive requests for prescriptions for cognitive enhancements (something like an off-label use of attention deficit drugs, beta blockers or other medicines to boost cognition rather than address perceived deficits).
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