US lifts ban on risky research to make viruses more deadly

The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday that it would allow the federal government to resume funding controversial research that makes viruses more contagious and deadly—despite scientists’ concern that the risks of such experiments outweigh potential advantages.

The federal government will lift a three-year pause, instituted in October, 2014, on funding the research projects.

The so-called “gain-of-function” experiments involve genetically altering viruses including bird flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) to make them more transmissible and pathogenic, in order to study the kinds of genetic changes that can make a disease more transmissible from person to person.

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But scientists are leery of the testing—suggesting that there might be less risky ways to draw conclusions.

The moratorium was imposed after government employees mishandled anthrax and avian flu, suggesting that labs’ biosafety and security standards were inadequate.

Scientists worry that if an enhanced virus were to escape from the lab, it could spread quickly and increase the toll of an outbreak, STAT news reports.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, insists the new policy results in a minor change in procedure, since the NIH continued to fund some gain-of-function experiments even during the moratorium, according to STAT news.

But scientists are still doubt the experiments’ efficacy.

“I am not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than potential harm,” molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University told STAT.

He argues that working with dangerous pathogens regularly results in serious biosafety breaches.

A lab worker could unknowingly become infected and walk out the lab’s door—releasing the pathogens.

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Marc Lipsitch of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said humans spread viruses faster than aerosol does.

“The engineering is not what I’m worried about. Accident after accident has been the result of human mistakes,” he told STAT.

Lipsitch argues that genetically modified viruses “risk creating an accidental pandemic” while they’ve done “almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemic.” He added that “a review of the sort proposed should disallow such experiments.”

Collins insists the studies are “important in helping us identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a risk to public health.”

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