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Update: U.S. pathogen inventory request won't include research pause

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

In the wake of several high-profile laboratory safety incidents involving smallpox, anthrax, and dangerous flu strains, the U.S. government will ask federally funded laboratories to inventory pathogens and review safety practices. But officials will not ask labs to suspend research for any specific period of time, or focus only on studies involving "high-consequence" pathogens, a source familiar with the matter tells ScienceInsider.

Earlier today, a memo distributed by groups that represent research universities reported that White House officials would call for a 24-hour pause in government-funded research involving the most dangerous agents. The memo was based on conversations between officials from the university groups and officials within the Obama administration, the memo said.

But some of the memo is incorrect, the source says. The request, which will come from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Security Council, will not use the word “suspend,” the source says. In addition, it will cover studies involving any kind of pathogen, not just the most dangerous agents. It will ask for an inventory and scrutiny of safety practices. The idea, the source says, is to provide flexibility and acknowledge that researchers know best how to address biosafety issues within their labs.

In a related announcement, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said today that September will be “National Biosafety Stewardship Month," and urged its laboratories and grantee institutions to take heed of the recent biosafety incidents. “Recent reports of lapses in biosafety practices involving Federal laboratories have served to remind us of the importance of constant vigilance over our implementation of biosafety standards,” the notice states.

Both moves come amid heightened debate over the risks and benefits of research involving potentially dangerous pathogens and the safety practices of the labs where the work is done. Some critics of such research have called for greater lab regulation and tighter controls on what kind of research the government funds. But many researchers argue the field is already tightly regulated, and further restrictions would imperil potentially useful science.

Posted in Policy