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What might go wrong and what might go right with such an experiment? Perhaps no institution can handle those questions better than the National Institutes of Health. So the NIH called for an ethics consultation and asked two essential questions: Can a Zika “human challenge” study be ethically justified? If so, under what conditions?

The panel’s answer, in short, was this: The research could be justified, but conditions must be met. They pushed pause on the Zika study. Their assessment epitomizes both the grand purpose of bioethics and the broad frustration with it.

Appreciation for ethics review is not universally shared among research scientists. In Boston, if you sneeze on either side of the Charles, chances are good you’ll infect a scientist who has a horror story. The panels are sometimes known as institutional review boards — IRBs — or research ethics committees. For researchers, IRBs have a reputation as research adversaries, given to overreach, delays, inconsistency and lack of transparency.

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Image: By FRED – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30734915

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