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06 January 2022

Greater controls are needed to tackle potential risks from lab-made 'self-spreading' viruses

New paper led by King’s academic warns such research could have irreversible consequences for the planet, wildlife and human communities.

pipette and test tubes in a laboratory

Scientists in the US and Europe are carrying out risky research into lab-modified viruses designed to spread repeatedly, a new paper in Science has warned.

The authors, led by Dr Filippa Lentzos, of the Department of War Studies and the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London, warn that this approach goes against the long-established view that such viruses are too unstable to be safe. They have called for greater regulation and discussion of the risks and benefits of such viruses.

They said: “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”.

Self-spreading viruses are based on the idea of deliberately altering them in the laboratory to be able to transmit easily between hosts once in the environment. It has been proposed they could be used like insecticides, to modify planted crops, or even as ‘vaccines’ to spread immunity rather than disease.

A prominent suggestion is that the approach could be used to prevent spillover events between animal and humans such as COVID-19. However, the authors of the ‘Policy Forum’ paper, highlight how most virus species are undescribed, making it difficult to imagine how they could target just one circulating in wildlife. The dynamic nature of mutation also means “it is extraordinarily difficult to mitigate spillover risk”.

Developing self-spreading viruses for environmental release is another example of risky virology research, like virus hunting in bat caves or deliberately making dangerous pathogens even more dangerous in the lab, all in the name of pandemic preparedness, but where it is far from clear that the anticipated benefits outweigh the very clear risks.

Dr Filippa Lentzos

The paper also shares concerns that adversaries could use such technologies to deliberately cause harm.

The authors warn: “Without open and inclusive engagement about potential benefits, risks, and appropriate precautionary measures from the scientific and international communities, self-spreading viruses for environmental release could arguably be developed very quickly, with limited funding or expertise and with potentially irreversible consequences for the planet’s biodiversity, ecosystems and environments.”

They warn that self-spreading virus research continues to proceed without the critical first step of establishing evidence of potential harms, benefits and risks, and they highlight how there is currently no regulatory pathway for assessing the safety and effectiveness of them.

They call for

  • the international community to update regulations to reflect the challenge from self-spreading viruses, with key principles around safety, justice, accountability, and public engagement.
  • a robust horizon-scanning process to develop global consensus on the criteria for safe, secure and responsible research.
  • National governments to clarify and, if necessary, update legislation and guidance.
  • Researchers to develop comprehensive and credible regulatory paths through which they think self-spreading virus approaches could be established and accepted by the public.

The paper says self-spreading viruses are not a new idea. In Australia in the 1980s a research programme was looking at using them to sterilise or kill pests and in the 1990s in Spain the approach was considered to protect native wild rabbits.

However, in both cases, the projects ceased, and a 2007 report concluded that releasing such an agent into the environment could have serious consequences. It said such viruses would be impossible to ever totally remove and so a highly precautionary approach was needed.

Despite this, the authors say that in 2016 interest reignited in the idea, and currently the European Union, the US National Institutes of Health and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are funding proposals around using such viruses for wildlife immunisations.

Those behind the proposals claim they could fine-tune the viruses to have predetermined lifetimes to prevent them evolving once released into the environment. But the authors say such claims are untested and highlight how the scientific community has historically been sceptical of such theories.

The paper was authored by Dr Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London, Edwards P Rybicki of the University of Cape Town, Margaret Engelhard of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in Bonn, Pauline Paterson of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Wayne Arthur Sandholtz of the University of Southern California, and R. Guy Reeves of Max Planck Institute.

In this story

Filippa Lentzos

Reader in Science and International Security