The US government has lifted a ban on making lethal viruses in the lab after ruling that the benefits of the research outweigh the risks.
Researchers will now be able to manufacture strains of influenza, Sars and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) in the lab.
The decision overturns a three-year research funding ban imposed after safety breaches at federal institutions risked the outbreak of dangerous viruses. In 2014 it was feared around 75 workers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were exposed to anthrax bacteria and are receiving treatment. Later that year, vials of smallpox which had been left in a cardboard box were found by a government scientist at a research centre near Washington.
A subsequent ban covered federal funding for any new so-called "gain-of-function" experiments that enhance pathogens.
One of the concerns with "gain-of-function" research is that while the work may produce useful insights, laboratory-enhanced pathogens could be used for biowarfare or bioterrorism if they fell into the wrong hands.
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) called for the ban on funding research into deadly viruses to be lifted, promising to introduce new safeguards. The government agreed following suggestions that a number of US states would be poorly equipped to deal with an outbreak of a deadly virus.
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"I believe nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead," said Samuel Stanley, chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which provided guidance on the new policy.
"Basic research on these agents by laboratories that have shown they can do this work safely is key to global security."
A scientific review panel will still have to approve each proposal and researchers will have to demonstrate that the work is "ethically justifiable" by proving that the benefits justify the risk.
Critics of the move have also said it could still create an accidental pandemic. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, told the journal Nature that such experiments "have done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics – yet they risked creating an accidental pandemic".
Francis Collins, the NIH director, said the funding ban had been lifted after the US government issued a safety framework to guide the research work. The NIH has promised to follow "a rigorous process that we really want to be sure we’re doing right," he said.