Several years ago, the NIH imposed a moratorium on funding for some types of research that involved altering three deadly viruses - MERS, SARS, and influenza. Now, they have announced that the ban is being lifted. Some scientists believe that in order to understand what makes these viruses create major outbreaks and to prepare for potential future pandemics, it may be necessary to tinker with them in the lab, potentially making deadlier forms of these viruses.
To ensure that this work is conducted responsibly and eliminate the risks, guidelines have been released by the Department of Health and Human Services that outline what kind of research gets funding and can be performed. Learn more about the announcement from the video.
"We have a responsibility to ensure that research with infectious agents is conducted responsibly, and that we consider the potential biosafety and biosecurity risks associated with such research," the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said in a statement.
When research on deadly strains of bird flu was done in 2011, the scientific community was not convinced that the work was worth the risks. Other unrelated problems have occurred as well, like the accidental release of live Anthrax samples from a government repository. Certainly, new work that modifies these viruses to make stronger forms will have to be monitored closely and carefully.
The moratorium imposed after the bird flu work was not meant to last this long, and some researchers fear the negative impact such stagnation can have.
"There has been increased scrutiny of laboratories working in this area, which can lead to an even more robust culture of safety. But I also fear that the moratorium may have delayed vital research," commented Samuel Stanley, President of Stony Brook University to NPR. He is also Chair of the NSABB and noted that he was not speaking for the biosecurity committee. "That could have long-lasting effects on the field. I believe nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead."
Researchers working in the field of virology are likely breathing some relief at the news that work in these areas can now continue. These viruses pose a real danger to people, and as such are worthy of serious study.