Going viral? Intentional dispersion of genetically modified viruses outside of contained facilities

September 3, 2020 6:00 - 7:30

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Virus-based approaches hold attraction in terms of speed and flexibility, with potential to horizontally spread among crops or animals (e.g., use of genetically modified (GM) viruses to protect plants against pathogens or to transmit vaccines from person-to-person).  Yet directed plant-chromosome manipulation and human vaccine injections remain the preferred approaches when applied outside of contained facilities, reflecting appreciation of the unpredictability of viral techniques. To what extent might GM virus technologies developed for contained uses alter the underlying reasons historically used to justify not releasing GM viruses into the environment? This session aims to foster discussion on deliberate releases of GM viruses into the environment and the implications of developments that might be anticipated within the next 2-5 years. Perspectives from biological and social scientists, ethicists, and policy experts will focus on examples from actual ongoing R&D efforts: (1) transmissible viruses intended to manipulate the immune system of mammals (including rabbits and humans) upon infection (e.g.,  mass vaccination  of entire populations; high hazard strategy); (2) gene editing viruses intended to genetically modify the chromosomes of the individuals they infect (e.g., genetically manipulating crops already planted in fields); (3) non-transmissible viruses without capacity for gene editing (e.g., protecting Florida orange trees from bacterial pathogens, low hazard technique). We propose to identify institutions who have remits to consider these types of international issues and what information they should be considering. The power of early events in establishing norms that impact subsequent developments will also be explored."

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