On Tuesday, the federal government has finally lifted a three-year ban that hinders scientists from studying or creating any lethal virus.

Lethal virus research has been a favorite subject of many fictional films. In fact, many zombie-themed Hollywood movies like World War Z and I am Legend have tackled the idea of viral outbreaks that almost sent humankind to extinction. Well, such a dystopian tale may not be far from happening in the future.

Yesterday, the National Institutes of Health announced in a press briefing that they are lifting the moratorium on studies that involve altering certain viruses to make them more lethal and transmittable. The head of the institute, Dr. Francis Collins, said that such work can now proceed as long as NIH’s scientific panel rules that the benefits are worth the risks.

The suspension was imposed last 2014, following a series of discoveries involving deadly viruses. It halted 21 research projects which include the creation of more dangerous and communicable strain of viruses that cause influenza, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

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Lethal Virus Research

Critics are not particularly happy with the government’s decision to lift the ban on lethal virus research for fear that a pandemic might spread should a monster germ escapes the controlled environment of a laboratory.

NIH acknowledges these possibilities and to prevent any viral outbreak, all researchers must prove to the government panel that their studies are valuable and would be done in a high-security lab. The scientists must also convince the government about the following:

  • the pathogens they will modify are legitimate health threats to the public
  • there are no safer ways to conduct their research on the viruses
  • the studies will produce beneficial knowledge about the viruses

“This kind of research can only be conducted in a very few places that have the highest level of containment,” Collins said in a story from the Washington Post. “This is a way of regularizing a rigorous process that we really want to make sure we are doing right.”

Collins also disclosed that 10 out of the 21 projects affected by the moratorium were able to secure waivers to resume their work. The waivers were applied to five MERS research studies and five flu experiments.

The new policy applies to any pathogen that could potentially cause a pandemic, including the creation of a strain of Ebola virus that is airborne.

For years, projects associated with creating deadlier viruses have been subjected to the public’s criticism and opposition. In 2011, an outcry arose after researchers in Wisconsin and the Netherlands claimed that they have found a way to make the H5N1 virus more transmittable in ferrets. That time, ferrets were used to model human flu susceptibility.

On the other hand, Beth Cameron, Vice President for global biological policy programs at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, said that having security procedures and a plan in place is one step in the “right direction.” However, Cameron noted that the United States would be the only nation in the world with such plan, highlighting the need for a thorough international discussion.

Do you support the government’s decision to lift the moratorium on lethal virus research? What’s your take on the issue? Let us know in the comment section below!

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