NIH Lifts Ban On Research That Could Make Deadly Viruses Even Worse

NPR | 19 Dec 2017
Scientists could soon resume controversial experiments on germs with the potential to cause pandemics, as government officials have decided to finally lift an unusual three-year moratorium on federal funding for the work.
The research involves three viruses — influenza, SARS, and MERS — that could kill millions if they mutated in a way that let the germs spread quickly among people.
The bird flu virus H7N9, for example, is known to have infected more than 1,500 people, and 40 percent of them died. But unlike common flu strains, this one does not spread easily among humans.
Biologists say they may need to alter these viruses in the lab to understand what genetic changes matter in starting pandemics, so they can understand the risks and get ready. But some of their past efforts to tinker with viruses have made other scientists uneasy.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services released a new framework for making decisions about funding research that has the potential to create a new pandemic strain.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that research with infectious agents is conducted responsibly, and that we consider the potential biosafety and biosecurity risks associated with such research,” said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in a statement.

The move by officials may mark the end of a long saga that has sharply divided the scientific community in recent years.
In 2011, scientists revealed that they had deliberately made forms of a deadly bird flu that could transmit easily among ferrets, the stand-in for people in flu studies. Critics argued that the knowledge gained wasn’t worth the danger of creating a superflu that might escape the lab. In early 2012, virologists agreed to put a voluntary moratorium on their bird flu work that was supposed to last only 60 days, but ended up lastingmore than a year.

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