DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Viruses out in nature are constantly mutating, and there's always the threat that one will change enough to start a deadly pandemic in humans. Some researchers want to stay ahead of nature, anticipating what will come by tinkering with viruses in the lab. But for over a year, the U.S. government has put a hold on experiments that might result in more dangerous forms of viruses like influenza. This is because scientists are divided over the potential risks and benefits of this work. There will be more debate on this today at the National Institutes of Health. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce says that this time, everyone will be arguing over a long-awaited report from an independent expert.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The report is a risk-benefit analysis done by a guy called Rocco Casagrande. He's got gray hair, glasses and a consulting company called Gryphon Scientific. His office is in a suburb of Washington, D.C. On the wall over his desk, there's a big picture of a tarot card known as the hanged man.
Are you into tarot? It doesn't seem like your sort of thing.
ROCCO CASAGRANDE: I'm not into it. I like what it symbolizes, but I don't believe in any of the tarot.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He is a scientist, after all, with a Ph.D. in biology from MIT. But he says this particular tarot card illustrates something important.
CASAGRANDE: So the story is the fool who's the hanged man needed to solve some puzzle, and so he hanged himself upside down from a tree for seven days and figured it out from that change of perspective.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now federal officials have spent the last four years grappling with a really tough puzzle, and trying to get a change of perspective is why they recently hired Casagrande. Back in 2011, scientists altered a deadly bird flu virus in ways that might make it capable of causing a pandemic in people. The goal was to see what this virus was capable of so public health workers could get ready. Critics said the work was too dangerous. What if there was a lab accident that caused a global outbreak? Scientists split into two camps that duked it out in meetings, in op-eds and in public debates. Eventually, the research continued with more oversight. Then, two years ago, some unrelated lab mishaps involving smallpox, anthrax and bird flu made officials think again. In October of 2014, the White House put a temporary stop to experiments that might create more dangerous forms of flu plus two other respiratory viruses.
CASAGRANDE: There are very few examples where the government has ceased funding of research because of safety concerns. And that is an extremely momentous decision that was made.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Soon after, when Casagrande saw the government wanted to someone to do an independent review of the risks and benefits, he applied for the job.
CASAGRANDE: I knew that this was one of the more important scientific policy questions in the life sciences probably in my lifetime.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He also knew what he was getting into.
CASAGRANDE: We knew it would be contentious, the debate would be passionate. We knew there would be stark criticisms no matter what we found. But we figured the analysis had to be done is rigorously as possible and that we could do it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: His team's report is over a 1,000 pages long, and all the major players in this debate will fight over what it means today and tomorrow at a meeting organized by the National Institutes of Health. Ron Fouchier is a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. It was his bird flu study, done with U.S. funding, that started this whole controversy. He thinks the report overstates the risks. He says labs like his have enhanced safety features that weren't fully considered.
RON FOUCHIER: And therefore, any risk that is being calculated is off by a few orders of magnitude from what it must be in my opinion.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, he liked how the report laid out the potential benefits. For the exact opposite view, talk to Marc Lipsitch. He's an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health who thinks these experiments should not be done. He finds the report's discussion of potential benefits unconvincing, and he thinks it downplays the risks.
MARC LIPSITCH: Even given their very optimistic assumptions in some cases and erroneous assumptions in other cases which all lead them to think the risk is smaller than it is, they still come out with a level of risk that is unacceptable.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: These reactions do not surprise Rocco Casagrande. He says in a situation like this, when you try to be impartial -
CASAGRANDE: You expect to be damned by both sides.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says his job was not to decide what changes to these viruses should be allowed, but to gather all the relevant information.
CASAGRANDE: If anyone's worried about any particular manipulation, they can use our report to find out exactly how risky it is compared to an unmodified strain and then go to the benefits section and say OK, what are the benefits of doing that type of work? And then make their own conclusions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It'll be months, probably, before government officials make any conclusions. Of course, it's not all up to the U.S. government. Scientific research happens around the world, and other nations may weigh the risks and benefits differently. At Ron Fouchier's lab in the Netherlands, he says this kind of experiment is on hold but he wants to restart this research. And if the U.S. eventually decides it can't support it, he'll go ahead with other sources of funding. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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