Studies on Potential Pandemic Pathogens Put on Pause

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ebola-mutate-deadly-01_84498_990x742A new wrinkle in federal funding for disputed gain-of-function studies (GOF) in which pathogens are modified to make them lethal or easier to transmit—the White House is putting funding on hold while experts craft a government-wide policy for evaluating the risks.

The funding “pause,” says a White House blog (from the Office of Science and Technology Policy), would pertain to new studiesthat “may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.”

Researchers working on these projects, “whether federally funded or not,” have been asked by the feds to consent to a voluntary moratorium during the evaluative pause. The blog says the funding pause “will not apply to the characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses unless there is a reasonable expectation that these tests would increase transmissibility or pathogenicity.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) notes an accompanying document describes plans for a two-stage “deliberative process” to determine the risks and benefits of GOF experiments and to develop a US policy for approving new studies, which will begin during the week of October 20. The White House expects to establish a final policy within a year.

Three years ago, a couple of research teams disclosed that they’d created a version of the H5N1 avian influenza strain that spread between ferrets, AAAS notes, and that many scientists worried that if the potent new lab strain were accidentally or deliberately released, it could result in a deadly pandemic.

Scientists were divided on the GOF issue. AAAS notes that while many in the scientific community have applauded the move, some have not. In the latter camp, AAAS cites the tweet of Alan Dove, a science writer and cohost of This Week In Virology, a science podcast and blog: “The Administration thinks what we need right now is to STOP research on deadly pathogens? WTF?”

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