MERS coronavirus particles (yellow).

MERS coronavirus particles (yellow).

NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Academy meeting on risky virus studies struggles to find common ground

Scientists who met in Washington, D.C., earlier this week to debate the risks and benefits of dangerous virus experiments found little to agree on, except for two points: A moratorium on U.S. funding for certain experiments should probably not cover studies of the virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a novel virus infecting people in the Middle East; and both sides worried that the U.S. government’s plans to quantify the risks and benefits of these experiments in the next 6 months seems unrealistic.

The 2-day meeting at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is one step in a yearlong review that the U.S. government launched after imposing the research moratorium in October. Officials were responding to a debate about studies that modify the H5N1 avian flu and other risky flu strains to spread among ferrets, potentially making the bird viruses more dangerous to humans. Several accidents this year in federal high-containment labs heightened concerns that such gain-of-function (GOF) studies could result in a dangerous virus escaping the lab and touching off a pandemic. The ban is much broader, however: It covers about 18 projects on influenza, MERS, and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) viruses that make these respiratory viruses more pathogenic or likely to spread in mammals.

Former Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg, who chaired the symposium committee, compared the polarized debate over the GOF flu studies to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character wakes up and relives the same day over and over. The same people continue to make the same arguments, and some scientists "feel like they're treading water," Fineberg said.

Indeed, much of the meeting felt like a rehash: GOF proponents argued the GOF studies are needed for flu surveillance and vaccine development, while critics said the risks are too great. But a few new voices chimed in. For example, Philip Dormitzer of Novartis Vaccines in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rebutted claims that vaccine manufacturers are not interested in the H5N1 studies. Such GOF studies can point to mutations that increase a virus’s fitness and therefore should not be included in a vaccine strain, Dormitzer said: "I do see potential utility."

And influenza researcher Robert Lamb of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, disputed claims by Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch that researchers studying risky bird flu viruses could substitute safer experiments, for example by using low-risk flu strains and doing modeling studies. To understand pathogenicity, "I don't see any alternative to doing the ferret experiments," Lamb said. Like Dormitzer, though, he said the benefits must be weighed against risks.

Other speakers defended GOF studies of MERS and SARS coronaviruses. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and others argued that their attempts to adapt the MERS virus to mice in order to develop an animal model for the virus are crucial for vaccine and drug studies. Nobody is attempting to alter the virus in ways that would make it spread more easily among people, which would be difficult to do, they said. Because of the ongoing MERS epidemic, “it is critical” that the funding ban be lifted for MERS, Baric said. At least one prominent voice on the anti-GOF side was convinced: Including coronaviruses in the ban "has muddied the waters. … Let's take it out," said Peter Hale of the Foundation for Vaccine Research in Washington, D.C.

Baric and others also worried that the pause will have a chilling effect on young virologists. An online survey advertised on social media in the 2 days before the meeting by virologist Julie Pfeiffer of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found reason for concern. Of 126 virology students and postdocs who responded, 37% said the debate had made them less likely to study influenza, MER, or SARs. And 53% have changed or are thinking about changing their research plans.

The symposium is supposed to feed into a broad risk-benefit analysis of GOF studies conducted by a contractor (see description here). The goal is to have the study completed in time to allow federal officials to develop a new policy for GOF studies and lift the moratorium by October 2015. But participants on both sides at the symposium worried that this plan seems rushed. Risk analysis expert Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told ScienceInsider that it is not possible to do a quantitative analysis that quickly. "Somebody may need to use the numbers for political cover, but it will be meaningless," he said.