Controversial virus research under review

“Gain of function” research does not seem like a productive use of limited research funds.

Anant Naik

Over the past several months, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has forced the international community to reconsider the way it responds to global health catastrophes. So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense have pledged $40 million of their own budgets and requested another $45 million to help control global health risks.

In light of the Ebola scare, the United States government has also taken measures to protect health at home.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced a review of “gain of function” research projects. This type of research seeks to enhance pathogen activity, making pathogens more dangerous and more transmissible.

The moratorium banned research only on certain diseases, including Middle East respiratory syndrome, severe acute respiratory syndrome and influenza.

From a moral and a pragmatic standpoint, these research programs should never have been carried out. Not only are they dangerous, but they’re also unnecessary when we have many other diseases to cure.

These diseases are deadly, and instead of finding mechanisms to increase their lethality, the international community should focus on how to treat them. The CDC estimates that approximately 10,000 people die from influenza every year. The common flu has been around for as long as we’ve known about diseases, yet we still don’t have sufficient means to completely mitigate its effects. Flu vaccines still aren’t perfect, as mutations in the viral strands make the disease hard to contain.

The MERS coronavirus is another deadly disease. The CDC states that we don’t have any viable treatment for it. Thus, 30 percent of all people who contract MERS die. If there’s no solution for MERS, why are we looking for ways to make it deadlier?

Scientists working on “gain of function” projects claim that their research is vital to make test stands for new antiviral drugs.

Ideally, yes, their research would be beneficial — but only in a world where accidents don’t happen and where bioterrorism isn’t a threat.

Scientists should only conduct pharmaceutical tests on wild strains once there is sufficient research on a normal strain. In July, a high biosecurity facility in Atlanta had lapses in security protocol, and people feared that researchers were exposed to deadly strands of influenza and anthrax.

This specific incidence was contained, but the prospects of similar incidents in the future are intimidating.

True, the precise definition of “gain of function” is disputed, and someone must work out those details. The government’s public health departments and the scientific community must further evaluate current projects. However, the general idea remains that researchers must consider moral implications of their work, especially when their work concerns the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.