The government may soon resume funding for research aimed at creating super germs that could cause pandemics in research laboratories.
That’s according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ new framework for funding research.
The government cut funding for such research back in October 2014, as researchers were working on ways to make three deadly viruses stronger: the flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Here’s more from Stat News:
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said the new policy didn’t represent a significant shift, since the NIH has continued to assess and fund some gain-of-function experiments even during the moratorium. Such studies will continue to be vetted by a federal panel before they can receive funding.
But the decision to lift the moratorium did not sit well with scientists who have long warned of the risks of such research — and questioned its benefits.
“I am not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than potential harm,” said molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, who has argued that U.S. labs working with dangerous pathogens regularly suffer serious biosafety lapses. Experiments to create enhanced viruses, he and others argue, could lead to the pathogens’ accidental release, most likely by a lab worker becoming infected unknowingly and then walking out the door.
“A human is better at spreading viruses than an aerosol” that might breach a lab’s physical containment, said epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who has calculated that the risk of a lab-acquired infection sparking a pandemic is greater than recognized. “The engineering is not what I’m worried about. Accident after accident has been the result of human mistakes.”