Featured Media Resource: [AUDIO] Biologists Choose Sides In Safety Debate Over Lab-Made Pathogens (NPR)
Scientists believe that to protect civilians from the next pandemic, they first have to understand the risks of researching viruses in experiments. However, opponents believe that making new strains of viruses aren’t worth the risk of a pathogen escaping the lab.
Do the risks of researching deadly viruses outweigh the benefits? #DoNowVirus
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Learn More About Virus Research
Viruses have plagued the human race since our conception, from smallpox 3,000 years ago to present-day HIV/AIDS, and for years, scientists have attempted to understand their nature and possibly control their spread. Because viruses can spread through air, contact with human body fluid, or even carrier organisms like mosquitoes, they constantly pose a threat to our race. With the recent outbreak of new strains like the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne virus that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, research on them has grown more urgent than ever.
Background / Science
Viruses infect millions across the globe each day. They spread and reproduce by infecting cells, forcing them to adopt their viral DNA and proteins and spread them to many other cells. Viruses constantly change and adapt to target organisms and in order to keep up, scientists are continuously researching the nature of new and old strains, working to develop vaccines.
Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “conducts research to learn more about these viruses, for example, where they spread, how they spread, and what kinds of disease they cause.” The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease has been studying ebola and is developing many vaccinations, therapeutic treatments, and better diagnostics to help stop the spread of this deadly disease.
At the California Academy of Sciences, microbiologist Shannon Bennett is currently researching the Dengue virus, which causes high fever and the inability of the immune system to produce antibodies to get rid of the virus. Similarly to fellow virologists, Bennett aims to fully understand the virus, delving into possible mutations and how it spreads.
More controversially, scientists conduct “gain of function” research, which involves adding new characteristics, in an attempt to predict what mutations a virus may gain in order to anticipate future outbreaks and find cures for them before they affect the human population. Although this practice has been temporarily prohibited in the United States, European scientists have sparked international controversy by continuing to develop new, deadly virus strains.
There are a number of critics of “Gain of Function” studies, who argue that this type of research into viruses can provide a route for widespread infection. Studying viruses in labs—no matter how sterile and airtight—increases the potential escape of deadly diseases. Even in sealed labs, accidents occur, and it is nearly impossible to anticipate the power of mutated viruses. While mutating viruses helps scientists develop vaccines that saves lives, even deadlier, more powerful, and more infective viruses are produced in the process. Creating mutations may be unjustified, as this kind of research only creates more risk of local and even global outbreak. Skeptics argue that money spent on Gain of Function studies could be spent on researching cures for current viruses threatening our population, like the common cold.
The U.S. Congress has considered the risk of bioterrorism from virus research. A week after September 11, about half a dozen letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to journalists and politicians across the country, infecting 22 and killing five. Additionally, the buildings where the letters were found were also contaminated with the spores. Roughly 30,000 people were deemed at risk of infection. In response to this attack, the U.S. government appropriated $60 billion dollars to the prevention of bioterrorism. Since 2001, countries around the world have been preparing for an attack. Japan, Israel and the United States have each stockpiled enough doses of the smallpox vaccine for all of its citizens. Although smallpox was eradicated in 1980, the possibility of an artificially re-engineered strain of the virus exists.
Defenders of virus research argue that researching viruses provides countless benefits for the human race. Through scientific research, many viruses have been cured or nearly annihilated, such as smallpox and measles. Studying more contemporary viruses like Zika, Ebola, MERS, and Bird Flu could not only slow the spread, but also prevent people from contracting them in the first place. By observing the ways viruses spread, scientists have also learned that viruses can spread through different species, yet another addition to the urgency of understanding, and preventing, and ending the spread of viruses.
So what do you think? Do the benefits of researching deadly viruses outweigh the risks?
ARTICLE: Should We Research More Dangerous Viruses, Despite Potential for Pandemic? (NPR – Future of You)
This story explores the scientific debate over whether to do experiments that could make more dangerous forms of certain viruses — influenza, SARS or MERS — that could potentially start a pandemic in people if those creations got out of the lab.
AUDIO: Bird Flu Research Rattles Bioterrorism Field (NPR)
Scientists and security specialists are in the midst of a fierce debate over recent experiments on a strain of bird flu virus that made it more contagious.
ARTICLE: Risk and Science: Should Some Virus Research Be Forbidden? (Genetic Literacy Project)
This article explains how the U.S. government has told scientists that a particular sort of research should not be done until its risks have been more carefully assessed—and is withholding funding to emphasize its point.
Do Next takes the online conversation to the next level: these are suggestions for ways to go out into your community and investigate how the topic featured in this Do Now impacts people’s lives. Use digital storytelling tools and social media to share your story and take action. Make sure to tag your creations with #DoNowVirus.
- Host Your Own Vote: Have have your class vote on the best approach to studying dangerous viruses and tweet your responses to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention using their Twitter handle: @CDCgov. Make sure to cite sources for evidence, and let us know if you get a response!
- Create a survey: Poll students in your school about what they think about this issue. Use Youth Radio’s How to Make an Infographic toolkit to prepare them to visualize the survey results in clear and engaging ways. Reflect on what’s most surprising about the findings, and send your results to @KQEDEdspace and @CDCgov.
KQED Education partners with phenomenal organizations to bring you the Science Do Now activities. The Science Do Now is posted every two weeks on Tuesday. This post was written by the following youth from the Science News Team within the California Academy of Sciences’ TechTeens program:
Alex B, Alvin S, Darrah B, Mathew L, Maggie Y, Ori L, and Sophie H
The TechTeens are youth leaders who use digital media to develop and communicate science stories for the public.