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Will the US Resume Hazardous Virus Experiments?

Scientists and policy makers are discussing whether studies that have the potential to create virulent and transmissible forms of viruses should be allowed to recommence in the US. Such studies, due to the fear of a virus being released into the community, have been suspended for a couple of years.

Selective experiments on viruses, like those responsible for bird flu, can create viruses more pathogenic than natural strains. One way this can happen is by changing the route of transfer (such as turning a virus spread by direct contact to one that can be transferred through the air). Some scientists argue that without working on the viruses in different ways, future mutations cannot be properly understood and society will be ill-equipped to deal with a future epidemic.

As an example, back in 2012, a researcher group produced strains of H5N1 bird flu, designed to spread rapidly among ferrets. The argument was that such studies improve surveillance for dangerous new strains. However, others felt the risks of such a virus escaping outweighed any application of this knowledge.

Speaking in favour of such research continuing, Paul Duprex, professor of microbiology at Boston University, told The Guardian:

“People have worked with dangerous viruses for a very, very long time and risk is something we manage. The reality is that the people who are most at risk are the ones working with these viruses. And self-preservation is very powerful. Whether I’m sitting in front of an Ebola virus or a measles virus, I don’t want to die.”

To consider these issues, researchers, public health officials, and representatives from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security have recently met to discuss a way forwards (the outcome of this meeting has yet to be made public).

It is likely, however, that a new high level committee will be set up whereby requests from research institutions to undertake genetic manipulation of viruses can be discussed, and approval either given or the project rejected.

The final recommendation will be made by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and approval is required from President Obama.

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.

  • Victor Grayson

    Dangerous, but this type of research helps in the long run.