The NIH is ending a three-year pause on funding
research into ways to genetically engineer viruses so they
become more contagious or deadly.
This sort of work is known as “gain of function”
research. It could help us prepare for the possibility that a
virus like this might evolve in nature.
But some fear that there are security risks — a
potential accidental release would be dangerous, and the
research could be used to create biological weapons.
Many experts think the
greatest possible threat to humanity is a fast-moving
airborne pathogen — a particularly deadly flu virus could kill
tens of millions of people in a year.
On Tuesday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it
lifting a moratorium on funding research into creating a
deadly virus with those capabilities.
The NIH’s policy shift will allow researchers to take already
dangerous viruses and genetically engineer them to be more
contagious or deadly. That could mean taking a flu strain or a
virus like MERS or SARS and modifying them so they spread more
easily or become more fatal.
These types of experiments are known as “gain of function”
experiments, since they add new — and riskier — functions to
The risks of developing powerful, deadly superbugs
Such research is controversial because of concerns that a
modified deadly disease could escape into the wild and infect the
public. That could happen if a terrible accident were to
occur, or if the know-how for creating a deadly superbug were to
fall into the wrong hands.
“Safety isn’t all about machines or ventilation, it’s also about
human judgment,” Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for
Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public
previously told Business Insider, shortly before the NIH
instituted this moratorium.
The NIH decided to stop funding these sorts of studies in 2014,
after a couple of terrifying slip-ups with deadly diseases. In
one case, the
NIH discovered that vials of smallpox had just been sitting
in a cold storage room of a Food and Drug Administration lab
(there are only two labs in the world authorized to possess
smallpox, one at the CDC in Atlanta and another in Russia). In
another case, the CDC accidentally exposed more than 75 workers
The moratorium halted ongoing studies in Wisconsin and the
Netherlands that were
working on creating mutant influenza viruses that could
spread through the air. The tests were being conducted on
ferrets, because airborne virus transmission between the animals
closely mimics the process between humans.
Why researchers want to create pandemic viruses
The argument in favor of this research is that nature itself
creates new deadly, contagious viruses on its own.
“We are coming up on the centenary of the 1918 influenza
pandemic,” George Poste, a leading member a group that assesses the state
of biodefense in the US, recently
told Business Insider. “We’ve been fortunately spared
anything on that scale for the past 100 years, but it is
inevitable that a pandemic strain of equal virulence will
The 1918 pandemic killed approximately 50 million people around
the globe, making it one of the deadliest events in human
history. Some experts believe that if we can create these types
of viruses ourselves in a lab, then we might be able to better
understand them before (or when) they naturally appear.
That’s why the NIH decided to allow these sorts of studies to
resume, according to a statement by director Francis Collins.
“[Gain of function] research is important in helping us identify,
understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures
against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public
Experts say there ways to do this work safely, but there are
still important questions to address.
According to Michael Osterholm, director of the University of
Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research, one of the
biggest concerns is how details of this work are communicated to
the public. Any release of such information comes with security
risks, but the NIH review process for funding these studies
doesn’t necessarily make it clear how much of the research would
become publicly available.
Say, for example, that a study found ways to genetically modify
Ebola virus so it became an airborne pathogen.
“If [that] were the case, I don’t want the public to have a
blueprint on how to do it,”Osterholm said.