Support Provided ByLearn More
Body + BrainBody & Brain

Lab-Mutated Viruses Could Spark Pandemic, Scientists Report

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

It sounds ripped from a horror movie, but scientists yesterday reported that mutant viruses tweaked in labs could accidentally escape their confines and ignite a pandemic.

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Virologists have been mutating known virus strains for decades in the hopes of discovering how they might evolve to become more virulent and deadly. The new report focuses on the dangers posed by “gain of function” studies, in which researchers endeavor to learn how a virus gains a function that makes it more dangerous, say when a strain that originally lodged in the lungs moves up the respiratory tract, making it more contagious.

Support Provided ByLearn More
A scientist at the Centers for Disease Control transfers H7N9 to vials for further research.

The report is based on studying hypothetical scenarios, running a series of models to ascertain the risks of studying pathogens using these techniques.

Ian Sample, reporting for the Guardian:

“We are not saying this is going to happen, but when the potential is a pandemic, even a small chance is something you have to weigh very heavily,” said Marc Lipsitch , an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health, who wrote the report with Alison Galvani , an epidemiologist at Yale.

Instead, Lipitsch and Galvani suggest using existing viruses that have already caused outbreaks in humans and animals and comparing their mutations. Those studies, they suggest, could be just as effective without posing as much risk.

Not everyone agrees, obviously:

The report was roundly rejected by [Ron] Fouchier and [Yoshihiro] Kawaoka, two of the leading scientists in gain-of-function studies. Fouchier said the authors were wrong on both points they made – that alternative experiments could provide answers about the transmissibility of viruses, and that the risk of an outbreak or pandemic was high.

Mutated virus studies have come under fire before, most recently in 2012 when two papers by Fouchier and Kawaoka on mutated flu strains were published after being delayed by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity out of concerns over weaponization.

Photo credit: CDC

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.