Risks and Benefits of Gain-of-Function Experiments in Potentially Pandemic Pathogens

Video by Derek Smith, Marc Lipsitch
Published on 11 February 2015

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk’s January 2015 Lecture, with Professor Marc Lipsitch and Professor Derek Smith.

A growing trend in experimental virology has been the modification of influenza viruses that are antigenically novel to, and virulent in humans, such that these variant viruses are readily transmissible in mammals, including ferrets which are thought to be the best animal model for influenza infection. Novel, contagious, virulent viruses are potential pandemic pathogens in that their accidental or malevolent release into the human population could cause a pandemic.

Professor Marc Lipsitch (Harvard) describes the purported benefits of such studies, arguing that these are overstated; estimates the magnitude of the risk they create, argues for the superiority of alternative scientific approaches on both safety and scientific grounds, and proposes an ethical framework in which such experiments should be evaluated. The talk also explore recent developments following the pause in funding for this research announced by the United States Government in October, and steps towards the risk-benefit analysis called for by the announcement.

Professor Lipsitch is a professor of epidemiology and the Director of the Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard University. He is one of the founders of the Cambridge Working group, which calls for a “quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits, and opportunities for risk mitigation” of gain of function experiments in potentially pandemic pathogen strains.

A response is given by Professor Derek Smith, Professor of Infectious Disease Informatics at Cambridge University.

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