ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Scientists could soon go back to conducting controversial experiments on deadly viruses like bird flu. Government officials put a hold on this kind of work three years ago, and now that ban has been lifted. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to explain why this research was stopped in the first place and what might happen next. Hi, Nell.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hello.
SHAPIRO: Why was this research stopped in the first place?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: All right, first you got to understand what this research is all about. Basically there are these animal viruses out there like influenza - infects birds and things. And sometimes these viruses jump into people and start spreading and cause a global pandemic. And scientists want to understand what threats are out there in nature and what kind of changes in the viruses might make them start a global outbreak in humans. And as part of that, what they want to do is sort of tinker with the viruses in the lab to see what they're capable of.
Now, in 2011, scientists announced that they'd taken a deadly bird flu virus and changed it in the lab in a way that it turns out made it transmissible - so contagious through the air between ferrets, which are the laboratory stand-in for people in these flu experiments. And so what that meant is basically they'd taken a flu virus that up till then out in nature hadn't been spreading between people like regular flu, and they changed it in a way that possibly made it capable of doing that. I mean, critics looked at this and said, you have just created a super-flu. Thank you very much.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: You have now just deliberately created the very thing that we are scared of.
SHAPIRO: I've definitely seen apocalyptic movies that began this way. So is this the reason that these kinds of tests were put on hold?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Exactly. And so some people said the benefits that we're getting from this research just aren't worth that risk. Now, you should know that the scientific community is split on this. I mean, scientists literally formed two groups that were, like, signing petitions and some saying this research needs to go forward. Others say it's just too dangerous. And so people couldn't seem to agree on the risks and benefits. And this debate has gone on for years. There was a voluntary moratorium that the scientists agreed to for a while, but then the research continued.
And then in 2014, a couple strange things happened. There were some unrelated lab mishaps where there were accidents involving anthrax. And you know, smallpox turned up in a place it wasn't supposed to be.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, I remember those.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And at the same time, you had the Ebola outbreak providing this, you know, vivid picture of what an unconstrained deadly virus can actually do. So in 2014, the White House said, whoa, we're going to put a stop to this research - any kind of research with influenza or two other viruses, SARS or MERS, that could potentially make those things more dangerous. And we're just going to stop and think about this and straighten it out.
SHAPIRO: So they spent three years thinking about this, and today they've announced a new standard for deciding when these kinds of tests should be allowed. What is that standard?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it's really more of a process. It's a process for having a committee review of the potential risks and benefits of any proposed experiment. And so what they're going to look at is, you know, what are the real benefits to doing this? What knowledge will be gained? Is it important for public health? And is there any safer way to get that same knowledge that we could pursue instead of these risky experiments? And some scientists are really pleased with this. They think finally the uncertainty they've been under for years is over, and now they know how they can make proposals and see if they can do the work.
SHAPIRO: Do you think this is going to satisfy the critics?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I don't think so because it's impossible to tell at the moment what experiments are going to be allowed. The framework doesn't, you know, set a clear red line about what's acceptable and what's not, and a lot of this is going to come down to judgments about risks and benefits. And people are going to disagree about that.
So I think we have to wait and see how the language of this new plan gets put into real life and to see what kinds of experiments are allowed to go forward and what kind of experiments are denied. I would not be surprised if in a couple of years we will sit together and talk about some experiment that has made some people very uncomfortable.
SHAPIRO: Well, I hope we get to talk before then, too. That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thanks a lot.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.
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