When is it OK to make germs worse in a lab? It's a more relevant question than ever
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The pandemic showed the world what can happen when a dangerous virus starts to spread.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
And that's one reason the government is taking another look at how it regulates some controversial lab experiments on viruses. Officials are meeting with key advisers today.
FADEL: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to fill us in on what this means. Hi, Nell.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey there.
FADEL: So what kind of research is under more scrutiny right now?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Basically, experiments that might make a germ worse, like more contagious or more deadly.
FADEL: Why would a scientist want to make a virus more deadly?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: To understand what viruses are capable of, to get ready in case a virus out in nature mutates. Critics would say this is risky. You're creating new potential threats. A virologist at the University of Michigan, Michael Imperiale, told me that this moment feels different.
MICHAEL IMPERIALE: I think that the pandemic has really kind of heightened the urgency with which we need to address these issues just because of all the controversy that's been out there regarding, you know, was this a lab leak or not?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A lot of people are suspicious about a lab in China and whether its activities might have started the pandemic. A government watchdog agency actually just criticized the National Institutes of Health, saying it didn't do enough to monitor what research was done with funding it gave to a group that collaborated with that lab.
FADEL: So what do virologists say about the lab leak theory?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, more than 150 of them have just put out a statement saying, look, open-minded people have investigated the pandemic's origins, and the evidence points to the virus coming from nature. Felicia Goodrum is with the University of Arizona. She says the evidence we have to date suggests that this virus jumped into our species when people had contact with animals, just like other viruses have done in the past, like Ebola and HIV.
FELICIA GOODRUM: There is no evidence to the contrary or in support of a lab leak - nothing credible.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nonetheless, she worries that scientists will get hit with onerous new regulations and that this will slow down research that's important for developing stuff like vaccines and drugs.
FADEL: Does it seem like the government will put new restrictions in place?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The White House and lawmakers in Congress have certainly been paying attention. Officials asked some outside advisers to weigh in. It's a group called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, and it's put together some draft recommendations that basically call for expanding an existing oversight system so that a broader range of experiments would get a special risk-benefit review.
FADEL: So how are scientists reacting to these recommendations?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The American Society for Microbiology has responded positively, although some experts say the devil will be in the details, like if regulations talk about a proposed experiment that's, quote, "reasonably anticipated to make a pathogen more dangerous," what does reasonably anticipated really mean? I was talking to Tom Inglesby. He's director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. And he told me, you know, you can take a benign virus and turn it into something awful.
TOM INGLESBY: So the government really has a strong interest on behalf of all of us in the public in knowing when researchers want to make a virus more lethal or more transmissible, and an understanding how that would be done, why that would be done, and whether the benefits are worth it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says, at the same time, you don't want to stifle science that's needed to protect the public health.
FADEL: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce - thanks.
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