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US lifts research funding ban over lethal virus research

Government officials have lifted the moratorium on funding for research that involves altering certain viruses to make them more lethal and transmittable. 

In a press briefing, the head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis S. Collins, said Tuesday that the research can now go ahead — provided a scientific panel determines that the benefits of that research outweighs any risks involved.

The suspension was originally put into place in October 2014, impacting research that involved making the influenza virus, as well as viruses that cause Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), more dangerous and communicable. 

The US government announced Tuesday it is lifting its moratorium on funding research into making deadly viruses more lethal and transmittable. (Image of cold virus HRV14 shown here)

The moratorium put a pause on 21 research projects, Dr. Collins said, according to the New York Times. But, over the past three years, the NIH made exceptions in certain cases, funding five projects that involved flu research and another five that involved MERS.

Now, scientists will be able to resume their research into these viruses, as well as any others with a high potential to cause pandemics. 

Researchers’ interest in creating the more virulent and transmittable versions of viruses is based on the potential for studies to reveal how the viruses can species jump or provide information that could help produce better vaccines against them. 

Critics, however, worry that the research could lead to the creation of aggressive viruses that could get out of lab and start pandemics.  

The NIH's Dr. Francis S. Collins said that scientists seeking research funds will need to face a government panel review which will determine whether the research's benefits outweigh any potential risks

The NIH’s Dr. Francis S. Collins said that scientists seeking research funds will need to face a government panel review which will determine whether the research’s benefits outweigh any potential risks

In an effort to reduce that possibility, the NIH — the main provider of government funds for biological research — said that going forward, researchers will need to prove to a government panel that the studies will be done in a high-security lab. 

Researchers will also need to be able to show the panel that the pathogens they wish to modify are a legitimate health threat, that there are no safer ways to conduct their research on the virsus and that the studies would result in beneficial knowledge about the viruses. 

‘This kind of research can only be conducted in a very few places that have the highest level of containment,’ Dr. Collins said, according to the Washington Post. 

The NIH’s new regulations are applicable to any infectious agent that could cause an epidemic, including the creation of an airborne Ebola, Dr. Collins said.  

The moratorium was put into place following a rash of revelations involving deadly viruses.

In 2011, researchers in Wisconsin and the Netherlands claimed to have found a way to make the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus more transmittable in ferrets. In research, ferrets are used as a stand in to show how disease might spread among humans.

Then, in 2014, the CDC accidentally exposed its scientists to anthrax and accidentally shipped a deadly flu virus to a facility that had asked for a benign strain. And, in 2016, the NIH found 50 vials of forgotten smallpox in a freezer.