- Apr 2, 2010
The federal government announced on Tuesday that it is lifting a three-year moratorium on funding controversial research that involves genetically altering viruses in ways that could make them more contagious, more deadly, or both — and that critics say risks triggering a catastrophic pandemic.
Called gain-of-function experiments, the studies aim to understand genetic changes that can make viruses such as bird flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) more transmissible from person to person. But if they escaped from the lab, perhaps through human error, the modified viruses could in theory spread quickly or be extremely virulent, increasing the toll of an outbreak.
The moratorium was imposed a few months after two mishaps at government labs, one handling anthrax and one handling avian flu, which together suggested that biosafety and biosecurity at even the most respected labs fell well short of what is needed to protect the public.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said the new policy didn’t represent a significant shift, since the NIH has continued to assess and fund some gain-of-function experiments even during the moratorium. Such studies will continue to be vetted by a federal panel before they can receive funding.
But the decision to lift the moratorium did not sit well with scientists who have long warned of the risks of such research — and questioned its benefits.
“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 U.S. labs working with dangerous pathogens regularly suffer serious biosafety lapses. Experiments to create enhanced viruses, he and others argue, could lead to the pathogens’ accidental release, most likely by a lab worker becoming infected unknowingly and then walking out the door.
“I am not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than potential harm.”
RICHARD EBRIGHT, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY
“A human is better at spreading viruses than an aerosol” that might breach a lab’s physical containment, said epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who has calculated that the risk of a lab-acquired infection sparking a pandemic is greater than recognized. “The engineering is not what I’m worried about. Accident after accident has been the result of human mistakes.”
He nevertheless called the new policy “a small step forward” because it sets up a formal process for evaluating whether the controversial experiments should receive federal funding. But because geneticallymodified viruses “risk creating an accidental pandemic” and “have done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemic,” he said, “my view is that a review of the sort proposed should disallow such experiments.”
In fact, he argued that the moratorium on federal funding of the experiments should be extended to cover those conducted with private money.
Collins, who announced the new policy, told reporters that 21 proposed studies were “paused” when the moratorium was imposed. But 10 were eventually funded through a case-by-case exemption process. The new policy, Collins told reporters, is “just a way of regularizing the process” of approving studies that enhance the transmissibility or virulence of viruses. He said he does not see the policy as “a particularly significant change.”