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believe nature is the ultimate bioterrorist,” says chair of the
National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, Samuel Stanley,
“and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead."
deadly pathogens on the loose have been the stuff of horrible
narratives, including books like The Hot Zone and movies such as
Contagion and Outbreak.
then there’s biological warfare, the deliberate weaponization and
dissemination of deadly diseases to achieve military or political
all terrifying stuff.
week, in hopes of getting ahead of such threats, director Francis S.
Collins of U.S. the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has lifted the
three-year moratorium against the funding of “gain-of-function
research,” the study of potentially deadly viruses including
influenza, MERS, and SARS.
goal, his announcement says, it to “identify, understand, and
develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly
evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health.”
(U.S. ARMY MEDICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES)
moratorium had originally been implemented in response to some
unnerving biocontainment errors.
one case, staff at the CDC was inadvertently exposed to anthrax, and
in another case, a harmless flu sample was mistakenly replaced by a
strain of the dangerous avian flu.
Obama administration began the moratorium, and many scientists oppose
the NIH’s new policy, alarmed that such lapses are inevitable should
humans are begin interacting with lethal pathogens again.
Ebright of Rutgers University, for one, recently told STAT, “I am
not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than
of the NIH’s action are convinced that only through further study of
these diseases can we stand a chance of defending ourselves against
the deliberate or accidental release into the population.
only way to get ahead of the risk is to do the research, but in a way
that tries to minimize the risk of accidental release,” says L. Syd
M Johnson, a bioethicist at Michigan Technological University in an
email to Big Think.
urgency to learn more about dangerous pathogens was reinforced in
July, 2011 when a team from Erasmus University led by virologist Ron
Fouchier, and another team at the University of Wisconsin led by
Yoshihiro Kawaoka “easily” created airborne variants of deadly
a nasty virus that otherwise only rarely spreads between humans but
that has nonetheless killed a minimum of 386 people since 2003.
new airborne strain is especially dangerous, only 3% different from
the 1918 flu that killed about 50 million people.
outcry was immediate. According to Lord May, former U.K. chief science
advisor, “The work they are doing is absolutely crazy.
whole thing is exceedingly dangerous.” Ebright said simply, “This
research should not have been done. It will inevitably escape, and
within a decade.”
yet, says Johnson, “There was initially a lot of handwringing about
Fouchier’s research, and whether it should be published.
seemed to provide a blueprint for bioterrorists, showing them how to
produce a deadly, airborne avian flu virus.
Fouchier’s work was published five years ago, and the worst did not
explained that the purpose of his work was to convince scientists that
others could find it relatively simple to weaponize such viruses, or
that the mutations could simply arise naturally.
other scientists found comfort in their present low communicability,
Fouchier told New York Times, “I wasn’t convinced.
prove these guys wrong, we needed to make a virus that is
Marc Lipsitch tells STAT, "A human is better at spreading viruses
than an aerosol.
engineering is not what I'm worried about. Accident after accident has
been the result of human mistakes."
he agrees with the NIH that newly strengthened handling guidelines can
ensure safety, with researchers seeking to study pathogens having to
prove that their labs are secure.
see this as a rigorous policy,” Collins tells the Times.
training (U.S. FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION)
new NIH policy allows the agency to resume funding of research
involving ‘Potential Pandemic Pathogens,’” says Johnson.
not like no one has been doing research on these pathogens — the
scientists of the world are not beholden to the NIH."
importantly, viruses mutate all by themselves in nature, which is how
avian flu occasionally jumps into humans already."
just a matter of time before the next deadly pandemic emerges."
the US want its scientists working on this research?"
the potential threat of these pathogens, and of deadly discoveries
falling into the wrong hands, I think we do.”