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 Now

Do the risks of researching deadly viruses outweigh the benefits? #DoNowVirus 

How to Do Now

Do Now by posting your response on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Flickr, Google +, etc.

Be sure to include@KQEDEdspace and #DoNowVirus.

Go here for more tips for using Do Now, using Twitter for teaching, and using other digital tools.


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.

The Debate

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?


More Resources

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

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.

  • Sarah A.

    The difficulty with this type of research is that the research and development of a “super-virus” can be the very cause of a pandemic. We have all seen movies where the scientist develops a mutant virus and it somehow gets out, whether it be through the researcher becoming infected or transmitting it on their clothes. Somehow, this possibility sparks the apocalyptic imagination in all of us. I mean, why create a virus that could kill millions when it doesn’t even exist yet? As a citizen I am opposed to this idea, but the inner young scientist in me must question the ethical implications of this research. By creating such viruses we could save millions of lives before a potential out-break with an already prepared vaccine. There is little published research on the topic of virology research which is understandable as national security precaution. With the large scientific advancements made within the last century alone, we are at risk for bioterrorism attack more so than ever before. These “super-bugs” are the new atomic bomb and we must be prepared for an attack if there is a way to prevent it. Although there are acts set in place to ban biowarfare, documents cannot protect us from an enemy. Previous research in the U.S. has no record of outbreak, and with such privacy of this predictive type of virology research, and the advancements in scientific techniques, our risks for furthering research are no greater than the risk we have currently with our already large stock of viruses in the U.S. CDC (which I live near in Atlanta).

  • Twila Cuenca

    It’s very difficult to actually side with either points on this topic because there are a lot of factors that come into play before an actual stand can be made. Firstly, do the benefits actually outweigh the risks? I believe so. To me, it is important to research cures for threats that target the inside of our human shells because we are nothing without a body. Cures can be made from the said research and we can further our study on different types of pathogens, rather than creating a wall of ignorance out of fear. It is understandable that a super-flu is the last thing the human race needs, but so is the lack of knowledge.

    Without a cure, our future will not prosper. Sure, if the super-flu was to get out, we would have no future. But if the regular pathogen continued its reign then the human race would slowly become extinct. If we’re all gonna die anyways, it would be much better to die stopping what will eventually kill us instead of cowering in fear.

  • Mariah Alves

    Although there are risks to researching these viruses such as a massive outbreak or creating a virus that is more-deadly and more-contagious, there are many benefits that are worth these risks. Just think, if we didn’t risk researching any of these viruses then we wouldn’t have vaccines or cures. We would be in the dark and potentially be at more risk than we are currently. Without knowledge of how viruses spread and how they can be prevented, most of us would still be infected with century old viruses. So although the risks of researching these diseases can be severe, the benefits that this research provides are great.

    • Sarah A.

      I agree that there has been huge progress made in our understanding of pathogen and viral life cycles by studying existing viruses. I feel as though there is a bigger issue at hand, this article is foreshadowing the day that research goes ahead of the curve of viral mutation and gain of resistance by predicting and re-engineering the strand in the lab. Although we have come a long way to provide vaccines and other modes of prevention, these discoveries happened by researching the already existing viruses. We did not engineer them. The unknown repercussions of creating a “Super-bug” to create a vaccine that will combat it may contribute to our demise if it is not properly monitored within the lab and causes an outbreak. Is that a risk you’re willing to take? Its a tough question for even myself to answer, but it is definitely something to think about.

    • CAStechteens

      Interesting point Mariah. It is definitely important to be prepared for the future where anything could occur. Even in the modern world, potential deadly diseases still pose a threat to the human population.

  • Ghazal

    Every time there is a potential technology or method to research a disease and create potential cures and treatments, there is almost always an ethical and social issue that goes along with it. The potential risks of using these “gain of function” methods should not be overlooked – if these types of technologies get in the wrong hands, there are terrifying possibilities and horrible consequences. However, this research is beneficial, as not only can it help find treatments and cures for current deadly disease, it has the potential of addressing future outbreaks as well. I’m torn between the debate on this, it’s very difficult to take a side but both sides have promising points as well as relevant areas of concern.

  • Richard Mayfield

    Although many viruses are extremely dangerous if released into the world, I do believe that research should continue on these various chemical compounds and diseases in order to help prevent outbreaks and if an outbreak is to occur, how to stop it. I especially believe that this research should continue because of evolving conflict around the world. The government of Syria has been involved in a brutal civil war for over five years, and in 2013 there was overwhelming evidence that they had used a chemical weapon called Sarin Gas to kill the rebels and take back control over a sector of a battle-scarred city. I believe that research on chemicals and diseases should continue in order to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. Although chemical weapons are banned from warfare at this time I don’t know how much longer it will be before nuclear, chemical, and bio weapons are an integral part of worldwide conflict.

    In the audio clip titled, “Biologists Choose Sides In Safety Debate Over Lab-Made Pathogens”, it states that many scientists are taking sides on this important issue. Both sides have many well-known and highly respected scientists arguing on their side. I take the side of having research continue on these pathogens and chemicals with one caveat. Research needs to have higher standards and security measures placed on it. If scientists get lazy or careless with these dangerous chemicals and they fall into the wrong hands, then the entire world would be at risk. This caveat is especially important with scientists being able to synthesize more and more dangerous and potentially deadly viruses. If these viruses are sold illegally to terrorist or suspicious organizations, the world could be under threat of a pandemic worse than the black plague and potentially could end the world as we currently know it.

    In the article, “Risk and Science: Should some virus research be forbidden”, it opens by explaining how the world has been captivated by the outbreak of the Ebola virus, but it states that we should not be so focused on Ebola since there are many other viruses that are just as, or more threatening. One of the main focuses in the article is a specific strain of bird flu that was being studied in a lab in the Netherlands. The scientists in the lab were seeing how the virus transfers between birds to mammals, and how the virus spreads once in a mammalian host. The research was banned by a popular memorandum in 2012 due to concerns about public safety. The researchers countered that if their research did not continue, it would be a bigger public safety risk because they would not know how to deal with the virus if it spread. The research was green lighted a year later in order to develop vaccines and better surveillance.

    I feel that if research does not continue on certain viruses and diseases, it will come back to haunt us in the future when the diseases are spread and we have no way to counteract them. But, on the other hand, if research is not done carefully and respectfully, the viruses will be on us sooner than we think and wreak havoc on an already unstable world.

  • Zachary Ernst

    I feel like we probably should not research viruses that could cause a pandemic. If something were to happen, we would not need to know the cure because it is going to start killing people. Researching viruses that could kill everyone would risk more lives than the actual virus could. In his article, Marc Lipsitch says “He thinks these experiments shouldn’t be done at all. “Experiments to manufacture viruses in the lab that may be highly virulent and highly transmissible in humans are extremely risky, and have very little value for improving our response to these viruses, compared to safe alternatives.” He is correct. Making a virus that can kill people would not be as effective as some scientists believe. Tabitha M. Powledge says “The potential risks are twofold. One risk is that viruses deliberately made more dangerous so that researchers can learn more about them might get out of the lab by accident and infect the population. The other is that these organisms might fall into the hands of terrorists, with deadly consequences.” If there is a deadly virus, I do not want terrorists to get their hands on them. ISIS is already very strong, but imagine if they had a virus like MRSA that will eat away at your skin.

    Some people believe that we should research viruses, but I feel like they do not know the consequences of researching them. Look at Ebola. Can you imagine if we were researching that here, and it spread like wildfire? That would be horrible. We do not need things like that to happen in this country. We already have enough problems in our country right now. We were doing exactly that in 2015 when the bird flu pandemic almost happened. We were trying to research the bird flu, when a chicken caught it, it spread through many chicken worldwide, and then got people when they came in contact with the chickens or when we ate them. These are scary thoughts when you think about how easy viruses like this can spread.

  • Davis Reschenberg

    In some cases it would be more beneficial to study for a cure for a disease rather than finding a vaccine. This can be done by observing the way a virus works and spreads, and finding a way to stop it from spreading. The reason this can be done without finding a way to prevent the virus, is because prevention is a more difficult task. It is much more simple to find a way to kill cells rather than stop them from mutating in the first place. In the long run it might be better to study these diseases in remote locations, so if a leak s to occur, the outbreak wouldn’t cause much damage. There is no solution to studying for viruses, it is a necessity, we have to find a way to work around the problems that rise

  • Jesse Ruiz

    I think we should research this stuff if we can help lives though the study of viruses why shouldn’t we do it? One of the biggest argument is that if the virus gets out somehow maybe an accident happens or the safety measures were broken that we get a super virus that could threaten human life. But the thing is that we already have that. The zika virus, ebola and even in the past we had some outbreaks like polio. We can’t stop the virus from mutating but we can understand how they function and eventually stop them if we the research. Yes their is a lot risk involved but considering that virus already exist that threaten human life why not go on with the research to help stop future ones from killing people.

Author

California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences is a leading scientific and cultural institution based in San Francisco. It is home to an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and research and education programs, which engage people of all ages and backgrounds on two of the most important topics of our time: life and its sustainability. Founded in 1853, the Academy’s mission is to explore, explain and sustain life. Visit www.calacademy.org for more information.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor