Scientists Fight For Superbug Research As U.S. Pauses Funding
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The White House wants researchers to temporarily halt any experiments that could make certain germs, such as flu, more dangerous. The reason is that recent incidents at federal laboratories have raised new concerns about the safety of this kind of work. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that some scientists say this is interfering with their efforts to combat the threat posed by these disease.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Daniel Perez studies flu viruses at the University of Maryland with funding from the National Institutes of Health. Tuesday night, he got an email saying he had to stop and reassess the work in his lab to make sure none of the experiments would make flu viruses more virulent or contagious.
DANIEL PEREZ: I wasn't expecting something like this to happen - like a pause would be instituted for this type of research.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The new ban affects not just work on flu but also two other viruses that have people worried about future pandemics - SARS, which emerged in China and MERS, which recently emerged in the Middle East.
Stopping research in this way is unusual. And it's the latest twist in an ongoing controversy that's divided the world of biology for over two years. This debate started because scientists had altered a deadly bird flu virus in the lab. They made it more contagious and proved this virus might mutate in the wild and start a human pandemic.
Critics charged that the labs had created super flus. They worried about the risk of the viruses escaping. And this summer, government officials started to worry about that too after a series of high-profile lab blunders.
ANDREW HEBBELER: Including the discovery of smallpox at the FDA, the exposure of CDC employees to potentially live anthrax.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Andrew Hebbeler is with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He says these incidents made officials want to take another look at whether scientists should really be in the business of making bad viruses worse, and if so, under what safety conditions.
HEBBELER: These are obviously the questions that the community is asking.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The government plans to consult with experts and the public to help weigh the risks and benefits. That effort kicked off yesterday. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity held a meeting at the NIH to hear from researchers who do this work and those who have concerns.
Kanta Subbarao studies MERS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She's been trying to alter the virus so that it can make mice sick. This would give scientists a much-needed way to learn about this new disease and test potential therapeutics in a lab animal.
KANTA SUBBARAO: And this moratorium will stop that research. I have concerns about whether that's the wisest thing to do in the face of an ongoing outbreak without a small-animal model.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Others at the meeting spoke in favor of the pause in research. Marc Lipsitch is an epidemiologist at Harvard University.
MARC LIPSITCH: I think the moratorium is long over-due. I would have preferred to have the risks and benefits weighed before these experiments started. But I think it's very important that we pause now and evaluate them in light of the increased concern over laboratory safety and the possibility of an accident that could lead to a pandemic.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Scientists have been passionately arguing over this for two years. So what are the chances that this latest effort will lead to some resolution? Virologist Paul Duprex of Boston University actually seemed optimistic. He opposes the moratorium, but respects people on the other side and says this shouldn't be seen as a fight.
PAUL DUPREX: If it's a fight, nobody's going to win.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He hopes this will be an opportunity to finally hash this out.
DUPREX: People who are concerned are thoughtful, nice guys. They deserve to be listened to, and likewise I think that they also want to listen to other opinions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Officials expect all of the meetings and deliberations to take about a year. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.