Scientists in the U.S. and Europe are creating “risky” self-propagating viruses in hopes of developing viral vaccines, according to a new article.
The article, written by an international team of scientists led by King’s College London, warns that this research could have “irreversible consequences” for the planet.
According to the article, scientists are currently trying to modify viruses in the laboratory so that they spread easily between hosts.
Scientists hope that the viruses could be used as insecticides to protect crops or even as a vaccine to transfer immunity from one host to another.
The paper’s authors, led by Dr. Philippa Lenzos of the Department of Military Studies and the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London, say these scientists are ignoring the longstanding view that self-propagating viruses are too unstable to be safe.
In a statement, Dr. Lenzos said the study is an example of “risky virology,” akin to “hunting for viruses in bat caves.”
“The development of self-propagating viruses to spread in the environment is another example of risky virology, akin to hunting viruses in bat caves or deliberately making dangerous pathogens even more dangerous in the laboratory, all in the name of pandemic preparedness, but where it is far from clear that the expected benefits outweigh the very clear risks.”
The authors of the article called for increased regulation and an open discussion of the risks and benefits of such research.
“Only a concerted global governance effort with consistent implementation at the regional, national, and local levels can address self-propagating viruses, which have the potential to radically alter both wildlife and human communities,” they said.
According to the report’s authors, the concept of self-propagating viruses has been around for years, but attempts to use them on insects and wildlife in Australia and Spain, respectively, were abandoned because of warnings that the potential consequences were too serious.
In 2016, however, there was renewed interest in the idea, with the European Union, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding proposals to use self-propagating viruses to immunize wildlife.