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Le Monde | 20.04.16

"Frankenvirus", bientot l'epilogue? Volker ter Meulen in an interview with Le Monde about the EASAC report on "Gain of Function".

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Translation of the full artcile into English:

«Frankenviruses», soon the end?

‘Frankenviruses’ – will they return to laboratories? Over the past 18 months, the legitimacy of these deadly and contagious viruses created by humans has fueled the debate launched by the American National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). In October 2014, the White House introduced a moratorium on financing devoted to work to create mutant viruses equipped with dangerous functions. It is time to analyse the potential impact of this researched called ‘gain of function.’ At stake—the risk of these viruses escaping into nature.

These worries are reinforced by the discovery of security breaches in some laboratories: in summer 2014, the leaders of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notably revealed that they had found vials of smallpox at the bottom of a freezer, a deadly virus of which possession has been illegal for thirty years. Mandated by the US government, the NSABB is preparing to take the final step of a process marked by expert meetings, reports, and scientific symposia: it will finalise its recommendations on 24 May. The government will then need to determine a new policy to frame the research.

The existing framework has authorised work on less controversial viruses. The scientific community recognised this in 2011 when two teams announced they had succeeded in transmitting by air a highly pathogenic avian H5N1 virus to ferrets, an animal whose biology is similar to humans’. This event marked the beginning of a controversy that still has not ended. In France, no gain of function type of research appears to be conducted on influenza. The work is often carried out on less pathogenic strains. Otherwise, the objective is rather to reduce their capacity.

At the level of the European Union, the science academies of the member countries – brought together in the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) - issued a report at the end of 2015. As part of the consultation organised overseas, Volker ter Meulen, a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, represented EASAC at the symposium organised by the American Academy of Sciences in March. The penultimate meeting of the process sought to discuss the draft recommendations of the NSABB. Among the key messages from EASAC: "The research that poses a problem needs to be managed and analysed case by case ," said Volker ter Meulen. A position consistent with the proposals of the NSABB.

High-risk studies

The U.S. committee characterised the studies as high-risk: those that can generate a pathogen that is highly contagious and highly virulent in an animal similar to other mammals and is resistant to vaccines and drugs. Funding would be subject to further evaluation. A rejection could be opposed if a less risky alternative method exists, if the potential benefits are not sufficient given the risks incurred, or if the institution proposing the research cannot lead it safely.

One question remains: who will carry out this evaluation? "The board should be independent of the agency that finances the research and the institution proposing the work, and it should have appropriate expertise," writes Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard, in a publication of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, along with two colleagues.

Another option would be to set a yellow line not to cross. And to prohibit some research. Member of the EASAC working group, Simon Wain-Hobson, professor of virology at the Pasteur Institute, regrets that the Council has not taken a stronger stance: "Some research is not acceptable: we must not intentionally make a more dangerous microbe." And the scientific question: "Cloning humans is forbidden, work on stem cells is strictly monitored. Why not do the same with these experiments that are dangerous to public health?"