US government lifts ban on controversial virus research

The National Institutes of Health lifted a three-year moratorium on federal funding for controversial research that involves genetically modifying viruses — in a way that could increase their virulence — to understand and prepare for a potential pandemic, according to STAT.

The research, which focuses on viruses such as influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, aims to understand which genetic mutations would make the viruses more transmissible between humans.  

Supporters of the research argue they need to alter these viruses in the lab to understand the risks of genetic mutations and prepare for pandemics.

"Evolution guarantees that naturally pathogenically 'enhanced' [strains] of influenza and other pathogens will emerge," Samuel Stanley, PhD, president of Stony Brook (N.Y) University and chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity told STAT. "Nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead" by conducting research "to help us better recognize and countermand these strains."

However, critics argue the research risks triggering a catastrophic pandemic if an altered virus escapes the lab.

"I am not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than potential harm," said Richard Ebright, PhD, molecular biologist at New Brunswick, N.J.-based Rutgers University, according to STAT. 

A moratorium was imposed October 2014 following two mishaps in government-run labs, one studying anthrax and another studying avian flu, which heightened concerns about lab accidents and public safety.

While the moratorium was lifted, researchers must still abide by HHS' newly released framework for experiments on pandemic pathogens.

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