- The NIH is ending a three-year pause on funding research into ways to genetically engineer viruses so they become more contagious or deadly.
- This sort of work is known as “gain of function” research. It could help us prepare for the possibility that a virus like this might evolve in nature.
- But some fear that there are security risks – a potential accidental release would be dangerous, and the research could be used to create biological weapons.
Many experts think the greatest possible threat to humanity is a fast-moving airborne pathogen – a particularly deadly flu virus could kill tens of millions of people in a year.
On Tuesday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it was lifting a moratorium on funding research into creating a deadly virus with those capabilities.
The NIH’s policy shift will allow researchers to take already dangerous viruses and genetically engineer them to be more contagious or deadly. That could mean taking a flu strain or a virus like MERS or SARS and modifying them so they spread more easily or become more fatal.
These types of experiments are known as “gain of function” experiments, since they add new – and riskier – functions to diseases.
The risks of developing powerful, deadly superbugs
Such research is controversial because of concerns that a modified deadly disease could escape into the wild and infect the public. That could happen if a terrible accident were to occur, or if the know-how for creating a deadly superbug were to fall into the wrong hands.
“Safety isn’t all about machines or ventilation, it’s also about human judgment,” Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, previously told Business Insider, shortly before the NIH instituted this moratorium.
The NIH decided to stop funding these sorts of studies in 2014, after a couple of terrifying slip-ups with deadly diseases. In one case, the NIH discovered that vials of smallpox had just been sitting in a cold storage room of a Food and Drug Administration lab (there are only two labs in the world authorised to possess smallpox, one at the CDC in Atlanta and another in Russia). In another case, the CDC accidentally exposed more than 75 workers to anthrax.
The moratorium halted ongoing studies in Wisconsin and the Netherlands that were working on creating mutant influenza viruses that could spread through the air. The tests were being conducted on ferrets, because airborne virus transmission between the animals closely mimics the process between humans.
Why researchers want to create pandemic viruses
The argument in favour of this research is that nature itself creates new deadly, contagious viruses on its own.
“We are coming up on the centenary of the 1918 influenza pandemic,” George Poste, a leading member a group that assesses the state of biodefense in the US, recently told Business Insider. “We’ve been fortunately spared anything on that scale for the past 100 years, but it is inevitable that a pandemic strain of equal virulence will emerge.”
The 1918 pandemic killed approximately 50 million people around the globe, making it one of the deadliest events in human history. Some experts believe that if we can create these types of viruses ourselves in a lab, then we might be able to better understand them before (or when) they naturally appear.
That’s why the NIH decided to allow these sorts of studies to resume, according to a statement by director Francis Collins.
“[Gain of function] research is important in helping us identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health,” Collins wrote.
Experts say there ways to do this work safely, but there are still important questions to address.
According to Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research, one of the biggest concerns is how details of this work are communicated to the public. Any release of such information comes with security risks, but the NIH review process for funding these studies doesn’t necessarily make it clear how much of the research would become publicly available.
Say, for example, that a study found ways to genetically modify Ebola virus so it became an airborne pathogen.
“If [that] were the case, I don’t want the public to have a blueprint on how to do it,”Osterholm said.