New Game, New Rules

Limiting the Risks of Biological Engineering

An illustration of strands of DNA Pixabay

Last October, the U.S. government suspended funding for a type of scientific research on avian flu known as “gain-of-function” studies. This kind of research involves creating more contagious forms of highly pathogenic avian flu in the laboratory to learn what genetic changes are required for a flu strain to cause a pandemic. The funding moratorium on such “gain-of-function” studies coincides with a formal “deliberative process,” including a risk-benefit assessment. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that Washington has paused an ongoing program to debate the wisdom of engaging in such research.

The main question is whether the scientific knowledge provided by making flu strains more contagious outweighs the risk of a lab accident or deliberate misuse that could lead to an outbreak of these enhanced viruses. Assessing the risks and benefits is not easy, and scientists and public health experts are sharply divided. In this case, we

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