NIH Lifts Ban on Funding High-Risk Virus Research

Manipulating viruses could help prepare the U.S. for future pandemics, but it could also risk starting the next outbreak

The newly lifted funding ban allows for more research of viruses like influenza, SARS, and MERS. But critics worry it's a risky step. jarun011 via iStock

The National Institutes of Health has lifted a three-year moratorium on controversial experiments that carry the risk of triggering a viral pandemic, but may also prepare the United States for a deadly outbreak.

As Nell Greenfieldboyce reports for NPR, the Department of Health and Human Services revealed a new framework on Tuesday for guiding federal funding of research that involves genetically altering dangerous viruses like influenza, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). 

“Gain-of-function” research, as this contentious field of study is called, sees virologists create mutations in the lab that can help them predict how a given virus will evolve—and whether it will become more powerful or transmissible in the future. But should an enhanced virus escape the lab, critics warn, the results could be disastrous. The NIH has spent the past three years weighing arguments about gain-of-function experiments—during which time they banned funding this work—and has ultimately decided that they are worth the risk.

“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,” NIH director Francis Collins said in a statement, according to Maggie Fox of NBC News. “Now we have a policy that is much more transparent and clear.”

In 2014, the White House imposed a mandatory “funding pause” on any research that could worsen the impact of influenza, SARS or MERS. The decision came shortly after NIH officials discovered “forgotten” vials of live small pox sitting in an unsecured refrigerator, Fox notes. Another embarrassing lab mishap, which saw the Army accidentally ship anthrax to Australia, came to light in 2015.

The possibility of human error is the primary concern for opponents of “gain-of-function” research. Should a lab worker unknowingly become infected, he or she could release dangerous pathogens upon the public.

“The engineering is not what I’m worried about,” Marc Lipsitch of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health tells Sharon Begley of STAT. “Accident after accident has been the result of human mistakes.”

But many virologists welcomed the NIH’s lifting of the moratorium. Viruses evolve constantly, and experts say that the another future flu pandemic will definitely happen, according to Fox of NBC News. The U.S. is, however, very poorly equipped to handle an impending epidemic; a recent Trust for America’s Health report found that there are “major gaps in emergency health preparedness” across many states. Being able to predict how a virus will behave, proponents say, can help public health officials better develop strategies for handling a pandemic.

“Evolution guarantees that naturally pathogenically ‘enhanced’ [strains] of influenza and other pathogens will emerge,” Samuel Stanley, president of Stony Brook University and chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, tells STAT’s Begley. “Nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead.” 

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