Is risky research eroding norms over release of self-spreading viruses?

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Decades of research by generations of virologists have generally established that the use laboratory-modified self-spreading viruses is too unpredictable to be applied safely outside of contained facilities. However, according to Filippa Lentzos and colleagues, these evidence-based norms are eroding, opening the door for risky research and proposals for use. In a Policy Forum, Lentzos et al. explore the consequences of this in the context of recent proposals to develop self-spreading genetically modified viruses in wildlife management and in self-spreading vaccines. The idea of using lab-modified self-spreading viruses for wildlife control isn’t necessarily new. For example, in the 1980s, Australian researchers developed several approaches using self-spreading viruses to sterilize or kill pest species, like foxes, mice and rabbits. In health care, self-spreading viruses have been promoted as vaccines. But the dynamics of a self-spreading virus passing from host to host enable a substantial potential for them to alter their biological properties once released into the environment, which could have disastrous unintended consequences. According to Lentzos et al., in recent proposals for the use of self-spreading viruses, biosafety, biosecurity, and ethical concerns are underappreciated – the result of eroding long-standing evidence-based norms – and current research on the topic has yet to present credible upsides to their use. Here, the authors discuss these issues and identify international institutions that could be leveraged to address current and future concerns related to efforts to promote and develop self-spreading viruses. “Only a concerted, global governance effort with coherent regional, national and local implementation can tackle the challenges of self-spreading viruses that have the potential to radically transform both wildlife and human communities,” write the authors.

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