United States lifts ban on lethal virus experiments despite security risks


Some pathogens covered under the 2014 funding ban include the avian flu, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Such a breach isn't out of the question, Sharon Begley reports for STAT News: government labs have mishandled unsafe materials like anthrax, bird flu, Ebola, and smallpox in the past.

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.

But supporters of removing the ban say many USA states are poorly prepared for an almost-inevitable outbreak of a deadly virus.

"How we detail that information needs to be considered", he said in a news post on CIDRAP's website.

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 critics worry that researchers may create a "super germ" that could threaten millions if it somehow escaped the lab.

Francis Collins, the NIH director, said the funding ban had been lifted after the U.S. government issued a safety framework to guide the research work.

The institution where the work is being done must demonstrate that the work is "ethically justifiable". But some voiced concerns about the potential risks.

And there must be a credible risk that the pathogen could be a source of a future human pandemic.

"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", Dr Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, said in a statement.

Scientists have lauded the move to raise the ban on funding, saying that the resolution on the issue will finally allow years of work to move forwards, in order for the world to be better prepared should any viral outbreaks occur again.

But Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, told Nature journal that gain-of-function experiments "have done nearly nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics - yet they risked creating an accidental pandemic". Grants that propose mutating viruses to make them more unsafe will go through an extra layer of review before the final funding decision.

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