A rogues gallery of the viruses (left to right) that cause MERS, SARS, and influenza.
An unusual government moratorium aimed at controversial research
with high-risk viruses has halted important public health research,
scientists told an advisory committee to the federal government on
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said
Friday that the federal government will, for now, not fund any new
research proposals that might make three particular viruses more
virulent or contagious. The three viruses are those that give rise to
influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and Middle East
The White House also said
it would encourage "those currently conducting this type of work —
whether federally funded or not — to voluntarily pause their research
while risks and benefits are being reassessed."
researchers who study these germs say they received "cease-and-desist"
letters from their funder, the National Institutes of Health.
moratorium has hit efforts to develop a small-animal model for MERS,
the troubling virus that's recently emerged in the Middle East, says Kanta Subbarao, a biologist who studies influenza, SARS, and MERS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
notes that currently scientists have no rodent models to use for
testing drugs or other treatments for MERS. Her group developed such a
model for SARS by creating a form of the virus that makes mice sicker,
and she wants to do the same for MERS.
"This moratorium will
stop that research," Subbarao told members of an advisory committee
called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, at their
Wednesday meeting on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. "I have concerns
about whether that's the wisest thing to do in the face of an ongoing
outbreak without a small animal model."
"This is potentially the worst time for this type of pause to occur," agreed Matthew Frieman
of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a MERS researcher who
notes that over the last several weeks a dozen more cases of the
illness have occurred.
What's more, a flu researcher named Stacey Schultz-Cherry
of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital told the committee that her
cease-work order from NIH inexplicably told her to stop work on projects
that included surveillance of circulating flu viruses. "And that really
concerns me from a public health standpoint," she said.
The chair of the NSABB said the committee would relay these issues to higher-ups; oneofficial noted that waivers could be granted under the temporary moratorium.
All of this is the latest twist in a long, stormy debate that began
about three years ago, after two teams of government-funded scientists
created mutant forms of the bird flu virus H5N1. This type of research
has polarized the scientific community, with biologists lining up on opposing sides.
of so-called "gain-of-function" experiments say the work is vital to
understand what these viruses are capable of, because of the risk that
they might mutate in the wild and cause a natural pandemic.
say the experiments effectively create super-germs that could wreak
havoc and potentially kill millions of people if they got out of the
In January of 2012, flu researchers voluntarily agreed to a moratorium
that ended up lasting about a year. The government adopted new policies
to give certain high-risk flu experiments extra oversight.
But then came the recent lab accidents at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that involved anthrax and a deadly flu virus.
government officials worried about lab safety and decided they had to
temporarily stop research that could create more dangerous pathogens, as
they began a year-long public process to look at the risks and
The NSABB will be weighing in, as will the prestigious National Research Council. The government will also be hiring outside experts to do risk analyses.
The final goal is a new policy to guide decisions about what should get funded.
"I think the moratorium is long over-due," says epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch
of the Harvard School of Public Health. "I would have preferred to have
the risks and benefits weighed before these experiments started. But I
think it's very important that we pause now and evaluate them in light
of the increased concern over laboratory safety and the possibility of
an accident that could lead to a pandemic."
Lipsitch notes that
the issue is not work with dangerous pathogens in general, but rather
research that could create novel, virulent, and transmissible agents
that might spark a pandemic in people.
"I was pleased to see the pause announced," says Dr. Thomas Inglesby,
director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for
Health Security. "I agree that risk assessment of this work is needed. I
think the risks are potentially extraordinary."
But others say
they think halting this research is counterproductive. "I'm
disappointed. I think it is a knee-jerk reaction to a very complex
problem," says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Virologist Paul Duprex
of Boston University also opposes the ban. "People don't completely
understand what is allowed and what is not allowed," he notes.
Duprex thinks starting this deliberative process is reasonable. "They
have outlined a time-restricted process for consultation," he says.
"That's good for the people who are vested in the experiments because
they at least know there is a process which is not open-ended."
After all, the flu research community has already gone through one year-long pause.
"After the voluntary moratorium on H5N1 transmission studies, new regulations and policies were issued," flu researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka
of the University of Wisconsin-Madison noted in an email. "I do not
know what else is needed. We will never be able to satisfy critics who
call for 'zero risk.' "
He had government approval for
additional H5N1 transmission studies, but says they will now be paused.
"There are other projects for which we need guidance from NIH to
determine whether they are subject to the pause," Kawaoka wrote, adding
that continued pauses to influenza virus research will delay progress in
science and have long-term effects on public health such as slowing
improvements in vaccines and antivirals.
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