Via ScienceInsider: Updated: U.S. halts funding for new risky virus studies, calls for voluntary moratorium. This is a big story; click through to read the whole piece. Excerpt:
The White House today stepped into an ongoing debate about controversial virus experiments with a startling announcement: It is halting all federal funding for so-called gain-of-function (GOF) studies that alter a pathogen to make it more transmissible or deadly so that experts can work out a U.S. government-wide policy for weighing the risks. Federal officials are also asking the handful of researchers doing ongoing work in this area to agree to a voluntary moratorium.
The “pause on funding,” a White House blog states, applies to “any new studies … 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 government also “encourages those currently conducting this type of work—whether federally funded or not—to voluntarily pause their research while risks and benefits are being reassessed.” Research and testing of naturally occurring forms of these pathogens will continue.
An accompanying document describes plans for a two-stage “deliberative process” to determine the risks and benefits of GOF experiments and to develop a U.S. policy for approving new studies. It will begin next week when the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an advisory group that has not meet for 2 years, convenes on 22 October to begin designing a study to assess the risks and benefits of GOF research. The National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC) and Institute of Medicine (IOM) will also hold a symposium to discuss the scientific issues, then later review the NSABB’s recommendations, which are due within 6 months.
“The NRC and IOM have begun selecting an expert committee to oversee this event, which will be held in public, webcast, and archived for the widest possible distribution,” according to a statement from the academies. The White House plan is to have a final policy in place within a year.
The U.S. government is responding to a resurgence in concerns about GOF studies, which have deeply split the scientific community. Three years ago, two separate research teams revealed that they had made a version of the H5N1 avian influenza strain that spread between ferrets. Many scientists worried that if the potent new lab strain were accidentally or deliberately released, it could result in a deadly pandemic. Proponents argued that such studies will help public health researchers detect an impending flu pandemic and prepare vaccines.