The National Institutes of Health has lifted a ban on funding research that would modify lethal viruses to make them even more deadly. While the research offers insights into the spread and mutation of viruses, experts say it risks triggering a pandemic.
STAT describes the goal of gain-of-function experiments as understanding the ways in which genetic changes of viruses can make them more transmissible among people. If scientists can predict the changes in a virus before they occur, they have the ability to create a vaccine before things get serious.
"Evolution guarantees that naturally pathogenically ‘enhanced’ [strains] of influenza and other pathogens will emerge," says Dr. Samuel Stanley, chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the president of Stony Brook University. "Nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead ... to help us better recognize and countermand these strains."
Concerns over GOF studies ramped up after researchers engineered a bird flu virus to spread to ferrets. The New York Times says ferrets are commonly used to model the flu virus in humans.
In 2014, anxiety over GOF experiments came to a head when the CDC accidentally exposed workers to anthrax and shipped a deadly version of the flu to a lab that had requested a harmless strain.
Science magazine reports that the NIH put a stop to GOF studies in October 2014. The ban affected 21 projects investigating the flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome, known as MERS, and severe acute respiratory syndrome viruses. Some of the projects were later allowed to continue, with the exception of eight flu studies and three MERS studies.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity created a set of criteria for funding GOF studies. In January, government officials directed the Department of Health and Human Services to use the criteria to create legislation for what they called "enhanced potential pandemic pathogens."
Along with the NIH's lifting of the ban, the HHS released policies for approving studies involving PPPs on Dec. 18. Proposals must be reviewed by an HHS panel comprised of individuals with backgrounds ranging from medicine to ethics and law.
Still, some scientists are concerned about the possibility of experimental error leading to radical consequences.
"I am not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than potential harm," said Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, according to STAT.
Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health says "a human is better at spreading viruses than an aerosol."
"The engineering is not what I’m worried about," he says. "Accident after accident has been the result of human mistakes."
Lipsitch still called the new policies "a small step forward" because it sets a standard for evaluating GOF experiments.