By Raunak Haldipur
A month ago, there was a resolution against net neutrality and now the ban placed on the research and making of lethal viruses in laboratories has been lifted. Researchers will now be able to manufacture different types of influenza, SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the lab.
Changes during Trump’s Presidency
A lot of changes have been happening since Trump came to power in the United States. In 2014, the Obama administration had put a stop to the development of the viruses. This happened primarily out of safety concerns and to develop a new Federal policy regarding the funding of this research. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) agency stated that the research helped in defining the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions and provide information about public health and preparedness efforts. However, it also posed biosafety and biosecurity risks, which need to be understood better.
This decision overturns a three-year research funding ban imposed after safety breaches at federal institutions risked the outbreak of dangerous viruses.
Risks and concerns
In 2014, it was feared that around 75 workers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were exposed to anthrax bacteria and are receiving treatment. Later that year, vials of smallpox, which had been left in a cardboard box, were found by a government scientist at a research centre near Washington. A subsequent ban covered federal funding for any new so-called ‘gain-of-function’ experiments that enhance pathogens.One of the concerns with ‘gain-of-function’ research is that while the work may produce useful insights, laboratory-enhanced pathogens could be used for biowarfare or bioterrorism if they fall into the wrong hands.
The NIH called for the ban on funding research on deadly viruses to be lifted, promising to introduce new safeguards. Following the suggestions that a number of US states would be poorly equipped to deal with an outbreak of a deadly virus, the government agreed. The concern is not only limited to the US but the whole world. With countless people travelling all around the world, an outbreak can easily become a global issue.
Scientists have long debated the merits of gain-of-function research and the new decision could reopen that discussion.
National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) chair Samuel Stanley, the president of Stony Brook University in New York, is pleased that the new rules do not ban gain-of-function research outright. “Basic research on these agents by laboratories that have shown they can do this work safely is key to global security,” he said in a statement. However, Stanley fears that the changes came at a cost. The three-year moratorium may have delayed research and reduced interest in the research of these pathogens. He believes that nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and that one needs to do all he can to stay one step ahead.
Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose work was affected by the ban, says that the new framework is an important accomplishment. Kawaoka, who studies how molecular changes in the avian flu virus could make it easier for birds to transmit to humans, now plans to apply for federal funding to experiment with live versions of the virus.
On the other hand, Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, says that gain-of-function studies have done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics. Yet, they risked creating an accidental pandemic. He argues that such experiments should not happen at all. However, if the government is going to fund them, Lipsitch says, he is glad there will be an extra level of review.
While we may have debates with regard to this decision, only time will tell as to whether this decision of lifting the ban is a wise one or not.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
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