The US Will Fund Research to Make Pathogens Deadlier Again

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The NIH lifted a 3-year funding moratorium on “gain-of-function” research meant to make deadly viruses stronger and more transmissible.

By Daniel Oberhaus | MOTHERBOARD

On Tuesday, the US National Institutes of Health, the largest biomedical research agency in the world, announced that it would be ending a three-year moratorium on research funding for projects that involve making pathogens stronger and deadlier than they are in nature.

Known as “gain-of-function” studies, this type of research is ostensibly about trying to stay one step ahead of nature. By making super-viruses that are more pathogenic and easily transmissible, scientists are able to study the way these viruses may evolve and how genetic changes affect the way a virus interacts with its host. Using this information, the scientists can try to pre-empt the natural emergence of these traits by developing antiviral medications that are capable of staving off a pandemic.

If genetically engineering viruses such as influenza, MERS, or SARS to be even stronger and more easily transmissible sounds like a recipe for some Contagion-inspired future hell, you’re not alone in your fears.

Even though the storage and use of deadly pathogens is strictly regulated, there’s always the risk they might fall into the wrong hands. In fact, last year former CIA director John Brennan cited “bio-threats” from genetically engineered biological warfare agents as one of the top existential risks facing the United States.

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