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U.S. Government Reinstates Funding for Making Diseases More Dangerous

Updated on April 10, 2018
Bradley Robbins profile image

Bradley Robbins is a tech, trade, and travel writer with a lifetime of experience with North America, Europe, and Japan.

Sometimes, “you have to trust us,” is the scariest thing you can hear from a government agency. On October 17, 2014, the U.S. government decided to pause funding for research designed to enhance the dangers of common bacteria and viruses while they reviewed the risks and rewards of such experimentation. The dangers appeared obvious to many in the scientific community as so-called gain-of-function research has rarely resulted in benefits in the past.

The National Institutes of Health issued a guide notice on December 19, 2017, noting that it had decided to resume funding such research, which enables programs designed to enhance both the lethal effects and transmission rates of illnesses including influenza, SARS and MERS, some of the most dangerous illnesses currently active in the world.

The Official NIH Stance

The NIH appears to have taken the position that the benefits of gain-of-function research on deadly viruses will allow doctors and scientists to better understand and control outbreaks in the future. This type of research includes determining how viruses become more lethal by creating more easily transmitted viruses in a controlled lab setting. The Director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, issued a statement noting that "We have a responsibility to ensure that research with infectious agents is conducted responsibly.”

He further added, “We consider the potential biosafety and biosecurity risks associated with such research." Those risks include the possibility of engineered viruses escaping into the environment at large and becoming a disease outbreak that could threaten both humans and the worldwide ecosystem.

The Possibility of Accidental Release

The chances of a lab accidentally releasing viruses into the populace aren’t negligible. It has happened in the past. The New England Journal of Medicine tracked the deadly outbreak of “Russian flu” in 1977 back to a likely “accidental release from a laboratory,” and a recent report from USA Today notes there are over 200 laboratories across the nation that could be involved in working with pathogens that could be harmful to human health.

Not all of them are overseen by the NIH or even agency bodies, and many that are have reported gross mistakes and violations. The threat remains very real to this day. The NIH even conceded in a statement that "There is no 'zero-risk' proposition in the conduct of research,” making the promotion of gain-of-function research by the government a potential timebomb.

The Meaning of "Gain of Function"

The guide notice specifically applies to research into “enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility (via the respiratory route) in mammals.” This means that the result could be even more deadly than natural strains of viruses and bacteria and easily transmitted through the air. By specifically calling out mammals, the notice from the NIH appears to suggest that testing should be done on a specific type of animal, those closest to humans.

Working with animals by using natural sources to protect our lives and our environment, instead of testing on creatures, is often considered a preferred method of enhancing health for all. Designing viruses that could affect entire ecosystems and trusting government workers to keep them safe seems an enormous risk to take with the environment, especially as animals have shown many tolerances to diseases that could negatively affect mankind.

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The World at Large

It’s hard to determine exactly what effects the environment at large could see in the case of an accidental release. During the avian flu outbreak, the H5N1 influenza virus resulted in the natural deaths or culling of hundreds of millions of ducks, geese and chickens across the world. Both wild and caged populations were affected by the spread of the virus, which reached more than 60 countries worldwide.

The loss of this many animals dramatically affected the ecosystems where the birds were responsible for pest control, fertilization and the feeding of larger beasts. Past pandemics have largely been the result of spread by mammals and avians, and their loss is felt both up and down the food chain. It is possible that another such event could further destabilize ecosystems if it affects apex predators and large herbivores.

Hollywood-Style Horror or Just Headline Hacks?

The perils of public funding aren’t entirely clear when it comes to such research. Funding levels change each year with each administration and budgetary bill passed in Congress, which has recently had trouble reaching agreements on the nation’s various expenses. Future reductions in funding levels could leave laboratories engaged in enhancing viruses without the appropriate gear or personnel required for housing or protecting the findings or resultant virus mutations, creating a situation much like the dangers associated with America’s aging nuclear arsenal. The same USA Today report noted many laboratories experience electric and ventilation failures that could facilitate pathogen escape.

And the possibility of weaponization research by agencies studying such enhanced pathogens remains a concern. With government funding attached to such research, the door is open for military intrusion into areas that are traditionally ethically policed by the scientific community. Military officials have often made decisions based on national security without considering the need for healthy ecosystems and clean water, which are both vital to continued life and growth on the planet. While safeguards will be in place, it seems all too easy for rogue elements to get their hands on enhanced diseases in a move straight out of Hollywood, resulting in either accidental release or purposeful acts of bioterrorism.

Natural and Man-Made Mutation

The move comes just prior to a January notice by the CDC that indicates the 2017-2018 flu season is likely to be one of the worst in a decade, and the H3N2 flu virus at the heart of it is among the most deadly mutations at large. Health experts are advising sufferers experiencing flu-like symptoms to seek medical care, as the so-called “Hong Kong flu” has over 50 years of natural mutation and may be gaining immunity from many antiviral solutions. Perhaps U.S. government funds would be better spent on an ounce of prevention, or even a pound of cure, instead of promoting the gain of function in pathogens?

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