White House to Cut Funding for Risky Biological Study

by admin 20. October 2014 22:10


Prompted by controversy over dangerous research and recent laboratory accidents, the White House announced Friday that it would temporarily halt all new funding for experiments that seek to study certain infectious agents by making them more dangerous.

It also encouraged scientists involved in such research on the influenza, SARS and MERS viruses to voluntarily pause their work while its risks were reassessed.

Opponents of this type of research, called gain of function — for example, attempts to create a more contagious version of the lethal H5N1 avian influenza to learn which mutations made it that way — were elated.

“Brilliant!” said Peter Hale, the executive director of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, which opposes such experiments. “The government has finally seen the light. This is what we have all been waiting for and campaigning for. I shall sleep better tonight.”

The announcement, which was made by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services, did not say how long the moratorium would last. It said a “deliberative process to assess the potential risks and benefits” would begin this month and stretch at least into next year.

The move appeared to be a sudden change of heart by the Obama administration, which last month issued regulations calling for more stringent federal oversight of such research and requiring scientists and universities to disclose that their work might be risky, rather than expecting federal agencies to notice.

Critics at the time dismissed those rules as too weak.

The moratorium is only on research on influenza virus and the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS. It made no mention of Ebola or any related filovirus. Ebola is already extremely lethal, but it is not easily transmissible.

No scientist has publicly announced an attempt to make Ebola as easy to transmit with a sneeze as flu is. Given the current panic around Ebola, and congressional anger at federal health agencies, it is unlikely that federal funding for such a project would be given out.

The debate over the wisdom of “gain of function” research erupted in 2011 when the labs of Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, separately announced that they had succeeded in making the lethal H5N1 avian flu easily transmissible between ferrets, which are a model for human susceptibility to flu.

The debate heated up further this year when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted it had suffered laboratory accidents that exposed dozens of workers to anthrax and shipped deadly avian flu virus to another federal lab that had asked for a more benign flu strain. Also this year, vials of smallpox that had been forgotten for 50 years were found in a lab at the National Institutes of Health.

The White House said the moratorium decision had been made “following recent biosafety incidents at federal research facilities.”

Dr. Kawaoka said he would not start any new gain-of-function experiments and would consult with the N.I.H. about which ones he had underway that met their criteria for the moratorium.

Many scientists were furious that such work had been permitted and even supported with American tax dollars. But others argued that it was necessary to learn which genetic mutations make viruses more dangerous. If those mutations began appearing naturally as the viruses circulated in animals and people, warnings could be issued and vaccines designed, they said.

Some scientists argued that the two scientists should not be permitted to publish all the details of their experiments, for fear that terrorists or unscrupulous scientists would duplicate them and start a fatal pandemic.

Others, like Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist and bioweapons expert at Rutgers University, argued that the long history of accidental releases of infectious agents from research labs made such work extremely risky and unwise to perform in the first place.

Dr. Ebright called Friday’s announcement “an important, albeit overdue, step.”

Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, called the moratorium “a wise move — I congratulate the U.S. government on taking this step.”

The new policy had to be announced now, he explained, because the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is to meet later this month. It will have 11 new members, and gain of function research is a principal agenda item.

Dr. Osterholm was one of 11 previous members who were removed from the board in the middle of the controversy.

All, like him, had been on it many years past their original five-year appointments and were due to be replaced, but had routinely been asked to stay, he said.

In April, he was the author of a letter to the National Institutes of Health complaining about government pressure on the advisory board. The institutes gave grants to support gain of function work.

The explanation given was that they had outlasted their tenures, but Dr. Osterholm said that “in the same week as the anthrax accident at the C.D.C., we all got an email on a Sunday night from a junior staffer telling us we were out.”

He called that a public relations failure: “P.R. zero point zero.”

, NY Times



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