The US government may now fund research that looks into engineering a virus to be more deadly and transmittable after lifting a ban they previously placed on themselves.
According to Science Alert, the moratorium, which was imposed three years ago, froze funding for what’s called “gain of function” research: controversial experiments seeking to alter pathogens and make them even more dangerous. Now, the money is back on the table, giving those trials the green light once more.
The director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis S. Collins, announced the lifting of the moratorium on Tuesday. Collins said “gain of function” or GOF research with viruses like influenza, MERS, and SARS could help us “identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health.”
But not everyone thinks this is a good idea. In fact, most are concerned. It isn’t that this research wasn’t being conducted before, there’s a good chance it was. But once the federal government shows interest in something of this magnitude, it’s time to worry. Some are concerned that the new flow of funding heightens the risk that unseen breeds of deadly engineered pathogens could escape lab containment, which would then make their way to the public, or into the wrong people’s (the government’s) hands.
“I am not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than potential harm,” molecular biologist Richard Ebright from Rutgers University told STATNews.
The NIH has revealed the new framework to regulate funding approval for pathogen research. Now, panels will consider the scientific merits and potential benefits of proposed studies, “as well as the potential to create, transfer, or use an enhanced potential pandemic pathogen.” Collins said that the improved framework for regulation of funding approval is the right thing to do. “We see this as a rigorous policy,” Collins told The New York Times. “We want to be sure we’re doing this right.”
To secure funding through the new process, researchers will have to demonstrate that they have the capacity to conduct their pathogen research in safe and secure facilities. They will also be required to have backup plans to mitigate issues stemming from things like “laboratory accidents, lapses in protocol and procedures, and potential security breaches.” But that still doesn’t calm the nerves of most.
Critics are correct in assuming that no matter how rigorously designed the new policy is supposed to be, the weakest link in all this (human error) remains unchanged. “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. “The engineering is not what I’m worried about. Accident after accident has been the result of human mistakes.“