A moratorium on certain risky virology studies imposed by the U.S. government last Friday has gone too far, a number of researchers said today. At a meeting at which experts were tasked with hashing out the risks and benefits of these experiments, the opening session instead was dominated by a litany of concerns that research important to public health is being curtailed.
Announced by federal officials on 17 October, the policy halts new federal funding for so-called gain-of function (GOF) studies that make a pathogen more transmissible in mammals or more pathogenic. It was sparked by ongoing worries about experiments in which researchers modify H5N1 bird flu and other deadly avian strains to learn what mutations might help them to spread among humans. But the so-called pause also applies to GOF work on any influenza strain and two coronaviruses, MERS and SARS. The idea is to provide a year for experts to work out a U.S. government-wide policy for reviewing GOF studies. Researchers who are already funded or have non-U.S. support are encouraged to join a voluntary moratorium.
Andrew Hebbeler, assistant director for biological and chemical threats in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), explained at a meeting today of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) that the policy is a response to several recent biosafety lapses at federal labs involving mishandled samples of anthrax, H5N1, and smallpox. Although GOF actually encompasses "a huge swath of life sciences research,” he said, officials decided to focus only on influenza, MERS, and SARS because they are can be transmitted through the air and have the potential to spark a pandemic. OSTP told ScienceInsider that about two dozen studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are affected; the pause also halts some studies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.