Becky McClain: Public Awareness of Public Health and Safety in Biotechnology - Tarrytown 2011





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Published on May 3, 2012

Becky McClain, a molecular biologist turned activist with the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology, discusses her experience as a biosafety whistle-blower and an injured worker at the 2011 Tarrytown Meeting.

The Tarrytown Meetings bring together people working to ensure that human biotechnologies and related emerging technologies support rather than undermine social justice, equality, human rights, ecological integrity and the common good.

Find out more about the Tarrytown Meetings here:

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Presentation Excerpt:
I stand here today as career molecular biologist turned activist because of ethical and moral concern.

While working in an embryonic stem cell lab at Pfizer, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, I reported ongoing public health and safety concernsto management. I soon began to experience retaliation that escalated into hostility. Soon there after, I became the victim of the very safety violations I was trying to prevent. An untrained lab worker used a human infectious genetically engineered virus, without suitable biocontainment, on my personal workspace. I began experiencing periodic paralysis and spinal pain -- a result consistent with the DNA- coded effects that had been engineered within the pathogen.

This experience ofwalking through the fire, of being both a whistleblower and injured worker, provided me a unique view into the social and political cultures within the biotech industry, which hinder human rights and public health and safety. I hope my perspective today can contribute to connecting the dots at Tarrytown to enhance the movement for better protection for both workers and the public.

In April 2010, an eight-member jury in the state of Connecticut unanimously ruled that Pfizer had retaliated against me and engaged in willful, malicious indifference toward my speech concerning public health and safety.

This unanimous decision by a jury is very significant. It provides a clear example that if the general public ever does becomes aware of what is truly going on in the biotech industry ... there will be an outcry... the public will quickly realize that self-policing and the lack of oversight within the biotech community are not providing adequate protections for their safety, their family's safety or the public's safety. So, my trial outcome should give us all hope and confidence that if we engage in a well orchestrated and strategic campaign towards public awareness, we could make a significant impact on the critical health and human rights concerns which underlie advanced biotechnologies.

Now I say "well-orchestrated campaign" for a reason. Because despite my story and other stories of injured biotech workers who have been made ill, maimed or killed, we still face immense challenges to inform the public. The one challenge we all face in common is the state of affairs brought about by a biotech industry, riddled with conflicts of interest and left to regulate itself. Networked with various businesses, academic institutes and governments, this complex of economic and political drivers makes for a formidable challenge to any would-be whistleblower, injured worker or concerned citizen who makes attempts to play fair in bringing about safety or social and human rights balances.

One of the first barriers is finding affordable and qualified legal help in a timely manner. The lack of experts and economic disparity make these high-risk cases. And although I am extremely grateful for winning my lawsuit, the economic reward, if it ever does come, comes after a long difficult battle. Many would-be whistleblowers would not be able to endure the economic hardships it requires. With all these limitations, the vast majority of legitimate claims cannot be brought to justice or to the public's eye.

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