While federal and state agencies institute new policies and procedures in light of Ebola making an appearance in the U.S., the White House has called for a suspension on research involving other viruses with deadly potential for the time being.
On Friday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced its moratorium on funding new "gain-of-function" research, saying it plans to further assess its risks and benefits. It also called for a voluntary stop on current research in this field.
"Because the deliberative process launching today will aim to address key questions about the risks and benefits of gain-of-function studies, during the period of deliberation, the U.S. Government will institute a pause on funding for any new studies that include certain gain-of-function experiments involving influenza, SARS and MERS viruses," the announcement stated. "Specifically, the funding pause will apply to gain-of-function research projects that 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."
The White House isn't forcing any current research to stop, but encouraged those conducting work that falls under this category to "voluntarily pause their research while risks and benefits are being reassessed."
"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 statement added.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, explained in his own statement that such studies to potentially make viruses more deadly or pathogenic is done to "enable the assessment of the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, and inform public health and preparedness efforts."
Collins acknowledged that there are biosafety and security risks that "need to be understood better."
An example is the research being done on H5N1. A couple of years ago, a study showed how the bird flu could mutate to become easily transmissible to humans. At the time, there was controversy over whether the methods should even be published — and it later was.
Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who lead this research, told Nature he will "comply with the government's directives" for gain-of-function studies to stop for the time being.
“I hope that the issues can be discussed openly and constructively so that important research will not be delayed indefinitely,” he said though, according to Nature.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the National Research Council of the National Academies will be integral in addressing these issues to develop recommendations for such research.
"The broader life-sciences community will be encouraged to provide input through both the NRC and NSABB deliberative processes. The funding pause will end when the U.S. government has adopted a Federal policy regarding gain-of-function studies on the basis of the deliberative process described above, which is expected to occur 2015," White House said.
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