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Posted on March 11, 2020 at 7:00 AM

One of the ethical concerns in modern medicine is whether
new technology developed out of a desire to help people may cause more harm
than good. Most of the time we think about this in relation to therapeutic
technology, but it may also be true of diagnostic technology. It is usually
good to be able to diagnose diseases more accurately but learning about a
diagnosis can cause significant stress and anxiety. When that is not balanced
by significant benefit to the person learning the diagnosis, diagnostic
information can cause more harm than good.

I think we are currently experiencing this type of harm from
new diagnostic technology in the current outbreak of Covid-19, and it may be a
while before we know whether our ability to diagnose this new virus has
actually resulted in more benefit than harm.  Prior to the development of rapid viral DNA
testing this new virus would not have been recognized early in the course of
its spread. 3000 or 4000 additional deaths from viral pneumonia in China where
there are 100,000 deaths from influenza annually might not have been noticed at
all. However, there might have been more deaths if the relatively extreme
limitations on movement had not been up imposed on the Chinese people in the
region where the outbreak began. There has undoubtedly been benefit from being
able to identify those who are infected with this new virus and isolating them
to help prevent increased spread of the virus. However, knowing that this new
virus exists has led to significant fear and panic. Some of the response has undoubtedly
been excessive, and those excesses can cause harm. Locking down the entire
nation of Italy, restrictions on travel that may be more than what is necessary,
and the closing of workplaces does more than just impact the stock market.
People are impacted by an overreaction to this new disease. Those of us who are
more affluent have enough margin to get by, but there are those who live week-to-week
and even day-to-day may be severely impacted by things that are being done more
due to fear and panic than well-established public health strategies.

There are hopeful signs that the number of deaths in China from
Covid-19 are rapidly decreasing, and if the impact in the rest of the world is
no worse than what it has been in China, the deaths from this virus worldwide
will be about 3 or 4% of the number of deaths from influenza each year. That is
significantly less than the normal fluctuation in influenza deaths from year to
year. It is not good that those people have died, but it is not the end of the
world. The ability given to us by DNA technology to identify this virus will
have helped through proven public health measures to decrease the impact of the
disease, but will the overreactions due to fear and panic cause as much or more
harm than the virus? We may never know.

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