Mutant Viruses Too Dangerous To Study
June 20, 2014

Mutant Viruses Too Dangerous To Study

It’s the stuff of science fiction catastrophe, or even horror stories. A scientist working in the confines of his laboratory produces a new, mutant species or a variant so dangerous that the world is at risk if it escapes. Such a scenario is no longer pure fiction and the possibility of a “doomsday” lab escape has ignited a fierce row among the scientific community.

Across the globe, research is taking place in which the aim is to deliberately produce mutations of potentially deadly viruses. The intentions, we hope, are good. In studying such mutations, researchers are trying to understand how they work, how viruses can transmit from animals to humans, and hopefully how to be able to eventually stay one step ahead of the killer bugs. Those involved in this research claim their work is not only safe, it is essential if man is to protect himself from future “super viruses.” But there is a growing lobby that says the risk outweighs the potential benefit. A mutant strain, they claim, could escape the lab and kick off a global pandemic. So this is no simple scientific spat. The stakes could not be much higher.

An article published this week by Alison Galvani, a professor at the Yale Schoolof Public Health, and Marc Lipsitch, professor at Harvard School of Public Health, claims the experiments in the “creation and manipulation of potential pandemic pathogens are too risky to justify.” They point to the availability of safer alternatives described in another article in PLOS Medicine.

Galvani and Lipsitch maintain that not enough is being done to ensure the safety of the experiments and they demand a more thorough scrutiny before funding is approved. Their biggest worry is what could go wrong with the so-called “gain of function” studies. Put simply, gain of function research aims to produce viruses that are actually more dangerous, easier to transmit, and increasingly virulent. In effect, they are producing in the lab the very mutations we fear most, a sort of Frankenstein’s monster scenario.

The proponents of gain of function studies refute the findings and claim their work is safe and necessary. However, back in 2012, US authorities were so concerned about one study that they tried to suppress it. The work was eventually published. It described how a series of simple mutations of the Bird Flu HN51 virus allowed it to become airborne and spread between ferrets in separate cages. As ferrets are often used as a “proxy” test animal for human disease response, the danger was clear. It was said to be one of the most dangerous viruses man could make. If the experiment was described in full and was easy to replicate, there was a risk of it becoming a weapon in the hands of bio-terrorists. New US guidelines were published in 2013, but concerns remain.

The gain of function supporters will tell you there has never been a virus pandemic resulting from laboratory experiments, which, of course, does not mean it can’t happen. Those against the work claim that one flu strain that affected humans around the world from 1977 to 2009 probably came from an unintended release due to a lab accident. From a layman’s point of view, it looks like we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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