Three years ago, the NIH prohibited the funding of a project that aimed at creating enhanced viruses to make them more dangerous and to study them further. The ban came a few months after 2 deadly pathogens, the Anthrax and the Avian flu, escaped from the government labs that were handling them. The Ebola outbreak that followed shortly after the anthrax and avian flu incidents only reinforced the concern about handling such deadly creations. However, it seems now that the government has found solutions to handle the new man-made viruses.
The experiments that led to the creation of the enhanced viruses are called gain-of-function, which means that the goal of such experiments is to study how the changes that occur inside those viruses could change their lethality. Some of the viruses being enhanced are the bird flu, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Apparently, scientists are very much interested in what makes those viruses more transmissible from person to person.
No matter how many justifications the NIH gives for lifting the ban, many can't help but worry about the uses or consequences of the said experiments. Molecular biologist Richard Ebright, who has previously warned the government about the gain-of-function experiments, said in an interview with State News that he couldn't see how the benefits of those experiments would surpass the harm that comes with it.
Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, however, said that he is not worried about the engineering.
"A human is better at spreading viruses than an aerosol," says Lipsitch.
The U.S Department of Health and Human Services attempted to calm the critics by putting together a framework, but the said document serves only to guide the funding decisions about the proposed research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs). Even though the document insists that research involving PPPs is important to ensure public security and health, it is critical to note that the document does not actually offer extensive measures in case the viruses escape from the lab, like what happened with Anthrax. The guide is essentially about how to organize the funding and which entities are allowed to participate. However, there was a small part where all parties agreed to stop all activities in case of an accident related to those super viruses occurs.