Late Last Year, The US Lifted Its Ban On Making Diseases More Virulent

Ebola VirusCredit: NIAID/Flickr

Numerous past mistakes and oversights have raised tensions over the risks associated with such research.

A moratorium on funding research that makes diseases more deadly and contagious has ended after its imposition three years ago. Head of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Francis S. Collins said such research may only move forward if a panel determines the risks are justified.

According to the New York Times,

> The pathogen to be modified must pose a serious health threat, and the work must produce knowledge — such as a vaccine — that would benefit humans. Finally, there must be no safer way to do the research.

Past mistakes and oversights increased tensions leading up to the moratorium, including two incidents with the Centers for Disease Control in which lab workers were accidentally exposed to anthrax and a deadly flu virus was mistakenly shipped in place of a benign strain.

Other incidents include:

  • A 2011 revelation that scientists in Wisconsin and the Netherlands were attempting to alter the H5N1 bird flu in order that it would jump easily between ferrets.

  • Efforts to make the flu virus, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) viruses, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) viruses more dangerous.

  • A 2014 report that the CDC found vials of smallpox in a freezer that were forgotten for 50 years.

The moratorium resulted in the freezing of 21 projects, though the NIH eventually allowed exemptions for ten of them.

Reactions have been mixed and tensions remain high surrounding the idea of creating such dangerous pathogens.

> Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist who directs the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, called review panels “a small step forward.”


> Recent disease-enhancing experiments, he said, “have given us some modest scientific knowledge and done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics, and yet risked creating an accidental pandemic.”

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Michael T. Osterholm, said another aspect for consideration is deciding what should be published.

> “If someone finds a way to make the Ebola virus more dangerous, I don’t believe that should be available to anybody off the street who could use it for nefarious purposes,” he said.

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