Scientists are creating ‘risky’ viruses in labs in US and EU, experts warn

Scientist looks into microscope Credit: PA

Scientists in the US and Europe are creating “risky” self-spreading viruses that could have “irreversible consequences” for the planet, a team of academics has warned.

These scientists are trying to modify viruses in labs to spread easily between hosts, in the hope of developing viral vaccines, according to a paper written by an international team of academics led by King’s College London.

It is hoped the viruses can be used like insecticides to protect crops, or used like a vaccine to spread immunity from one host to another.

Dr Filippa Lentzos, of the Department of War Studies and the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London, said the research is an example of “risky virology” similar to “virus hunting in bat caves”.

She said: “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.”

The authors of the paper have called for more regulation and discussion about the risks and benefits of such research.

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."

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The concept of self-spreading viruses has been around for years, the report’s authors said.

There were attempts to use them on insects and wildlife in Australia and Spain, but they were abandoned over warnings that the potential consequences were too serious.

But in 2016, there was renewed interest in the idea, with the European Union, the US National Institutes of Health and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding proposals around using self-spreading viruses for wildlife immunisations.