Published: Wed, December 20, 2017
Health | By Jay Jacobs

Risky mutant virus research can once again receive government funding

Risky mutant virus research can once again receive government funding

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.

"GOF 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", said NIH director Francis S. Collins in a statement.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) lifted a ban implemented three years ago on funding research that would modify lethal viruses to make them even more deadly.

Concerns over GOF studies ramped up after researchers engineered a bird flu virus to spread to ferrets.

Collins says that because NIH has already allowed some of the original paused studies to proceed, the new policy isn't "a dramatic change...but now we have a policy that is much more transparent and clear", says Collins.

The research, which focuses on viruses such as influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, aims to understand which genetic mutations would make the viruses more transmissible between humans.

But critics argue that such research risks creating a risky germ that could escape the lab and seed a pandemic.

In 2014, anxiety over GOF experiments came to a head when the CDC accidentally exposed workers to anthrax and shipped a deadly version of the flu to a lab who had requested a harmless strain. After a long discussion, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) decided the two studies should be published and federal officials issued new oversight rules for certain H5N1 studies. Grants that propose mutating viruses to make them more unsafe will go through an extra layer of review before the final funding decision.

Today, along with NIH lifting the pause, HHS released its review framework.

Some of the criteria listed by the HHS framework that should be considered when evaluating individual proposals includes an assessment of the study's risks and benefits, deciding if the investigator and research institution can conduct the experiments safely, and determining if there is a safer alternative that could produce the same results.

Still, some scientists are concerned about the possibility of experimental error leading to radical consequences.

"I am not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than potential harm", said molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, who has argued that US labs working with unsafe pathogens regularly suffer serious biosafety lapses.

"A human is better at spreading viruses than an aerosol", epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told STAT.

Additionally, an enhanced potential pandemic pathogen is defined as a PPP resulting from the enhancement of the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogen, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

"The engineering is not what I'm anxious about", he says. He said he has not seen details of the review process, so he does not know exactly what it would mean for the research community.

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