The US federal government has lifted an enforced moratorium on funding research into how to make viruses deadlier and more transmissible.
The director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis S. Collins, announced the lifting of the moratorium on Tuesday, saying gain of function 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”.
According to some, the new flow of funding heightens the risk that unseen breeds of deadly engineered pathogens could escape lab containment – making their way to the public, or into the wrong people’s hands.
The new framework is intended to guide scientific panels in assessing proposed research into these ‘enhanced’ forms of potential pandemic pathogens, which are defined as viruses that are highly transmissible and likely capable of wide and uncontrollable spread in human populations, and also likely to cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans.
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, with backup plans to mitigate issues stemming from things like “Laboratory accidents, lapses in protocol and procedures, and potential security breaches”.
The funding moratorium was initially enforced after a string of high-profile biocontainment blunders in the US, including the accidental exposure of workers at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to anthrax, and a dangerous mishandling of avian flu samples, which saw a deadly strain unintentionally substituted for a benign sample.
“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.”