RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about yet another deadly virus that has public health experts here in the U.S. worried. This one emerged recently in the Middle East. And the fear is it will mutate and spread worldwide. Scientists are actively studying this virus to get ready for that threat. But now the federal government has called a halt to some key research into the illness. NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce has the story.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Ralph Baric really, really likes viruses.
RALPH BARIC: It's true. I just like viruses.
BARIC: I don't know.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He studies coronaviruses. These viruses can give you the common cold. They generally don't make people seriously ill. But about a decade ago, one popped up in China that did. The virus seems to come from bats. In humans, it caused a severe acute respiratory syndrome. The so-called SARS virus killed nearly 800 people. And it alarmed scientists like Baric.
BARIC: Any virus that has pandemic potential, and that's any respiratory virus that comes from animals, there's a major public concern.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: SARS could spread between people but not very well, so the outbreak quieted down. But a couple of years ago, another deadly coronavirus emerged, this time in the Middle East. It's called MERS, for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Camels seem to carry this one. It's sickened more than 900 people so far. Over a third have died. And this outbreak is happening now, with new cases in the last few weeks. Baric says if this virus mutates so that it spreads easily through the air, millions could die.
BARIC: It would go around the globe quickly, and this would result in high morbidity and mortality, disruption of the economy and, in some cases, the collapse of governments.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: His team studies MERS and SARS at the University of North Carolina, where he's a professor. Baric is a big guy with white hair, a mustache and blue eyes. A swimming scholarship took him to college. As a student, he got hired at a virology lab. His life's work began at a sink, where he earned a couple of bucks an hour to clean all the flasks and glassware.
BARIC: I started as a dishwasher. Yeah, I'm pretty good at it. I still - I can still do that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says viruses can be dangerous, but they're also elegant. They're a form of life that's so simple, you actually have a shot at understanding how it all works.
BARIC: And so viruses provide beautiful, intricate probes that allow you to study that, so there's a certain beauty in them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One of his colleagues is Lisa Gralinski. She says she could always tell when he was working in the high containment lab because she'd hear disco.
LISA GRALINSKI: You can see on the sign-in sheet who's in there, but sometimes you can tell in advance based on the music. So if it was the Bee Gees, I knew it was Ralph.
MATT FRIEMAN: Ralph is probably the foremost coronavirus biologist in the United States and one of the best in the world.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Matt Frieman is a virologist at the University of Maryland who used to work for Baric.
FRIEMAN: Most anyone working on coronaviruses is going to admit that he is the big cheese.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he gets a lot of funding from the government. A few weeks ago, the White House did something unusual. Officials announced that they were halting certain government-funded experiments on three viruses - flu, SARS and MERS. Word came out on a Friday afternoon when Baric was out of the office. He has four kids, and a daughter was getting married.
BARIC: I had a fantastic weekend. It was a beautiful wedding, and it was one of the best times of my life. And she was so happy.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then back to work that Monday, he opened his email and was stunned to learn about the moratorium. He thought of all his lab's research projects.
BARIC: It took me 10 seconds to realize that most of them were going to be affected.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's because the government wanted to review all experiments that might make these viruses more dangerous. The move came in the wake of some high-profile lab accidents, plus some extremely controversial flu experiments. Those studies made a deadly bird flu virus more contagious between ferrets, the lab's stand-in for people. The goal of that work was to see whether this bird flu virus might mutate in the wild and start a pandemic in people. Critics were aghast. What if this lab-made superflu escaped? David Relman is a microbiologist at Stanford University.
DAVID RELMAN: I don't think it's wise or appropriate for us to create large risks that don't already exist.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks the government was right to include SARS and MERS in this moratorium because they are so close to being pandemic viruses.
RELMAN: The one thing that I would feel most concerned about doing is to give them that one missing trait, their means of transmitting easily between humans.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But here's the thing - that kind of experiment is not happening in Baric's lab. He's not trying to change the way SARS or MERS gets transmitted. He doesn't know of any lab trying to do that. Still, his group has recently been tweaking the MERS virus. So is he making a more dangerous?
BARIC: If you're a mouse, the answer is probably yes, or at least I was trying to.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Scientists study viruses in mice so they can test vaccines and drugs. MERS doesn't make mice ill. Baric wants to alter the MERS virus so it can make mice as sick as it makes people. The trouble is the government ban applies to all experiments that might make these viruses worse in any mammal. Officials with the National Institutes of Health say that's because worse in a mammal can mean worse in humans. But Baric says when it comes to SARS and MERS, there are key differences between people and mice.
BARIC: Number one, mice don't sneeze.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They don't transmit these diseases through the air. And, he says, the process of adapting these viruses to mice actually makes the germs less able to infect human cells.
BARIC: So they're safer.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, he's doing what the government wants.
BARIC: The NIH has asked me to stop those experiments. And so we have stopped those experiments.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's hoping federal officials will soon grant him waivers that will let that work continue. He's been told other studies can go on for now but will need to be reviewed later. I asked him if his lab is creating any new forms of these viruses that would be more dangerous for people.
Do you see any plausible way that anything in your lab is doing that falls under that category?
BARIC: Absolutely not. And we do more genetics in coronavirus than probably anyone else in the world.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he was surprised that SARS and MERS were included in the moratorium. But he understands that those controversial flu experiments did raise real concerns for scientists and the public.
BARIC: And as stewards of that public trust, I think we have to have open dialogue about that. I think we have to have transparency.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he'll do whatever it takes to keep studying these viruses that are so beautiful and so dangerous. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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