On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services lifted a ban on funding for research that focuses on making germs more lethal. The new framework is intended to guide future funding decisions for research involving manipulation of potential pandemic pathogens.
The ban, which has caused division in the scientific community, was imposed in October 2014 after fallout from the controversial alteration of the bird flu into a deadly and easily transmissible form in 2011. Critics of the scientific breakthrough argued that knowledge gained in the process was not worth the risk of the deadly pathogen escaping the laboratory.
The moratorium on funding affected experiments involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses. The National Institute of Health asserts that research into these germs “is important in helping us identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health.” Critics continue to argue that the risks of pandemic pathogens escaping is not a risk virologists should be willing to take.
The new framework addresses these concerns. “However, there are biosafety and biosecurity risks associated with undertaking such research that must be adequately considered and appropriately mitigated in order to help safely realize the potential benefits,” HHS acknowledges. The department describes the oversight involved in maintaining safety in the research process, explaining that a scientific panel will now decide whether the benefits associated with the study and manipulation of pathogens justify the risks.
“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,” director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said in a statement.