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Risk and science: Should some virus research be forbidden?

At the moment, virus news seems to all be about Ebola. But there’s reason for concern also about a particular kind of research on viruses that cause entirely different diseases like flu—concern that prompted the White House to declare a moratorium on the research on October 17.

Ebola has pushed nearly all other topics out of the media mind, so you probably haven’t heard much about what seems to me a pretty remarkable step: the US government telling scientists that a particular sort of research should not be done until its risks have been more carefully assessed—and withholding funding to emphasize its point.

The moratorium, and the reasons it was imposed, and the arguments against it, comprise a fine example of the ethical conundrums that arise out of genetic research. Should the research be permitted? The kind of research at issue focuses on trying to make a disease virus more virulent or infective. These are often called gain-of-function experiments, but that does not mean all gain-of-function work is potentially dangerous. The viruses involved in this case are those that cause flu, SARS, and MERS–influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and Middle East respiratory syndrome.

The potential risks are twofold. One risk is that viruses deliberately made more dangerous so that researchers can learn more about them might get out of the lab by accident and infect the population. The other is that these organisms might fall into the hands of terrorists, with deadly consequences.

Pros and cons of gain-of-function virus research

It didn’t take scientists long, though, to complain that the moratorium, imposed in the name of public health, could actually endanger public health by preventing researchers from learning more about dangerous viruses . They made their case last Wednesday at a meeting of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, its first since 2012. The reason for the long delay in meeting has not been explained. Half of the 23-member NSABB were abruptly fired and replaced last summer. The delay and sudden member turnover is a bit mysterious and also worrisome, given that the board is supposed to advise the government on so-called “dual-use” research, research on organisms or other agents that might be exploited by bioterrorists.

This work is not just a theoretical possibility. Scientists in Wisconsin and the Netherlands have actually done this sort of gain-of-function experiments with two bird flu viruses, making them easier to transmit in mammalian model organisms. The research caused such a furor that a voluntary moratorium was declared in 2012, but the research resumed a year later. “We believe this research is important to pandemic preparedness,” said one of the researchers, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin. “Understanding how the avian virus is adapted to mammals will lead to better surveillance and vaccines.”

Deliberately making a disease organism more dangerous sounds loony at first glance, and lots of people think it’s loony no matter how many glances you give it. “Many other scientists were and are extremely concerned about these experiments, which some of us consider dangerous and irresponsible,” says Steven Salzberg, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Salzberg is one of the scientists involved in the Cambridge Working Group, which has been pressuring the administration to restrict the experiments–-pressure that was one factor leading to the new moratorium.

There are, arguably, reasons for doing this sort of gain-of-function research. One example is the need to develop small animal models to better study a disease. One researcher is claiming the moratorium will halt her surveillance of flu viruses circulating in animals, potentially a source of human infection. Another points out that potential flu drugs must be tested on wild strains, which could produce resistant viruses.

A “voluntary” pause, but government coffers are closed for business

The White House blog described its action as a pause on funding any new gain-of-function research on these viruses. It also urged researchers currently doing the work to voluntarily stop doing it. At ScienceInsider, Jocelyn Kaiser reports that about two dozen NIH-funded studies will be affected, plus some at the Department of Agriculture. Nell Greenfieldboyce reports at NPR’s Shots that some researchers who study these viruses say the National Institutes of Health, which holds the purse strings, has already sent them “cease-and-desist” letters.

The NSABB is expected to make recommendations about whether and/or how to proceed with this research. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences will also be participating in the decision about when (or maybe if) to lift the moratorium. It is organizing a meeting to discuss pros and cons of gain-of-function research, to be followed by a meeting to discuss the NSABB’s draft recommendations. The White House says the ban on funding will continue until a final policy has been adopted.

Bioterrorism, lab accidents, and Ebola

Bioterrorism is certainly a reason for concern about deliberately making disease organisms more dangerous. But the dismaying truth is that, historically, bioterrorism has been much less of a risk than accidents emanating from well-meant research efforts to protect ourselves, a topic I wrote about in June. Documented deaths due to accidental release of smallpox and anthrax have been occurring since the 1970s.

The White House says the moratorium was prompted largely by the recent revelations about sloppy and potentially unsafe conditions at several government labs–where, for example, cleanup crews happened upon forgotten stores of the smallpox virus, supposedly banished from the face of the Earth to the safety of repositories in Russia and at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decades ago. I wrote about these revelations in July.

I can’t help wondering, though, how much the irrational panic over US cases of Ebola–and the vituperation President Obama’s opponents have loosed upon him as a result–doesn’t have something to do with the White House’s decision that a moratorium on this research was a good idea. Details of the Ebola panic, collected by Maryn McKenna at Superbug, will astound you.

Tabitha M. Powledge is a long-time science journalist and a contributing columnist for the Genetic Literacy Project. She also writes On Science Blogs for the PLOS Blogs Network. Follow her @tamfecit.

 Additional Resources:

Genetic technologies offer long and short term views of Ebola dangers. Genetic Literacy Project

Researcher probes why viruses remain genetically stable for some time, then rapidly mutate. Popular Science

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