Safeguards on laboratory-modified viruses ‘inadequate’

Experts warn of dangerous abandonment of long-standing ethical limits in pursuits of human vaccines and wildlife management

January 7, 2022
Scientist carefully carrying matured cell to another plate
Source: iStock

Researchers in the Covid era are increasingly taking unacceptable risks by trying to create laboratory-modified viruses that can spread on their own, an international team of experts warns.

The experts – in the fields of science, policy and law – write in Science magazine that they see growing interest in using self-spreading, genetically modified viruses in work on human vaccines and wildlife management, without sufficient ethical oversight.

The abandonment of long-standing ethical norms against such work “could have disastrous unintended consequences”, according to the team, with members from the US, the UK, Germany and South Africa.

Such work is taking place in university settings with the financial support of major government agencies in the US and Europe, although at relatively low levels so far, the team report. The funding has amounted to about $1 million (£700,000) over five years at the National Institutes of Health and $9 million over four years at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, both in the US, and €10 million (£8 million) over five years at Horizon 2020 in Europe, it said.

Such scientists have “published more than 15 substantial articles over the past five years, and they’ve widely promoted the idea of self-spreading vaccines in popular science magazines and the media”, said a lead author on the paper, Filippa Lentzos, senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London.

“These efforts are taking place without adequate engagement from regulatory or scientific communities,” said Dr Lentzos, whose paper in Science has co-authors from the University of Southern California; the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; the University of Cape Town; and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and Federal Agency for Nature Conservation.

A key concept animating the pursuit of self-spreading genetically modified viruses is that they could halt or prevent pandemics such as Covid-19 by employing the same opportunistic behaviours seen in harmful viruses to counteract their effects.

Advocates of that approach include biology professors James Bull of the University of Texas at Austin and Scott Nuismer of the University of Idaho, whose work involves stopping infections in livestock populations that could cross over into human populations.

“Advances in genetic engineering now raise the possibility of overcoming these challenges through the use of self-disseminating vaccines capable of transferring from one individual to the next,” they wrote in a 2020 paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Dr Lentzos said her team wasn’t opposed to such investigative work, but argued that it has not been sufficiently evaluated. Much of that research is taking place in academic settings, and universities therefore “have a responsibility to assess the risks and potential benefits”, she said.

The debate over self-spreading, genetically modified viruses has not become widespread in the US, although some US lawmakers have grown highly critical of a related technique known as “gain of function research”, in which scientists alter an organism to give it new abilities.

Gain of function research is one method of developing self-spreading vaccines, but not the only one. Opposition to “gain of function” has become an emotional rallying cry for numerous conservative US lawmakers who struggle to understand the science and believe that the Covid pandemic may have originated with Chinese researchers artificially enhancing the powers of bat coronaviruses.

Both self-spreading vaccine technology and gain of function research carry high risks and careful safety reviews, Dr Lentzos said, and politicising the science “is not helpful in strengthening bio-risk management”.

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