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How well-intentioned research with dangerous pathogens could put people at risk.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists .

The public health danger posed by potentially pandemic-causing viruses escaping from laboratories has become the subject of considerable discussion, spurred by “gain of function” experiments. The ostensible goal of these experiments—in which researchers manipulate already-dangerous pathogens to create or increase communicability among humans—is to develop tools to monitor the natural emergence of pandemic strains. Opponents, however, warn in a variety of recent research papersthat the risk of laboratory escape of these high-consequence pathogens far outweighs any potential advance.

The danger of a manmade pandemic sparked by a laboratory escape is not hypothetical: One occurred in 1977, and it occurred because of concern that a natural pandemic was imminent. Many other laboratory escapes of high-consequence pathogens have occurred, resulting in transmission beyond laboratory personnel. Ironically, these laboratories were working with pathogens to prevent the very outbreaks they ultimately caused. For that reason, the tragic consequences have been called “self-fulfilling prophecies.”

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How dangerous viruses could escape from laboratories.