In a U.S. government lab in Bethesda, Maryland, virologists plan to equip the strain of the monkeypox virus that spread globally this year, causing mostly rash and flulike symptoms, with genes from a second monkeypox strain that causes more serious illness. Then they’ll see whether any of the changes make the virus more lethal to mice. The researchers hope that unraveling how specific genes make monkeypox more deadly will lead to better drugs and vaccines.
Some scientists are alarmed by the planned experiments, which were first reported by Science. If a more potent version of the outbreak strain accidentally escaped the high-containment, high-security lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), it could spark an “epidemic with substantially more lethality,” fears epidemiologist Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s why he and others argue the experiments should undergo a special review required for especially risky U.S.-funded studies that might create a pathogen that could launch a catastrophic pandemic.