HHS on Tuesday lifted a three-year moratorium on federal funding for research that examines how certain viruses can be made more infectious and communicable, and announced a new plan to assess ways to study the hazardous pathogens.
According to the Washington Post, the federal government in October 2014 placed a moratorium on federal funding for such research, known as "gain of function" studies, after:
- A group of researchers in 2011 claimed they had made the H5N1 influenza virus more transmissible in ferrets;
- A CDC lab in 2014 shipped a deadly flu virus to a lab that had requested a benign strain of the virus;
- CDC workers in 2014 were exposed to anthrax; and
- NIH in 2014 discovered 50-year-old vials of smallpox in a freezer.
According to the New York Times, gain of function research could help scientists better understand how viruses mutate to be more contagious among humans or could help them to create more effective vaccines. But critics have warned that the research could lead to viruses that pose too great a risk to public health.
NIH Director Francis Collins on Tuesday said there were 21 gain of function projects that were receiving federal funding at the time the moratorium was issued. Collins said researchers leading 10 of those gain of function projects—including five that focused on the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and five that focused on flu viruses—had previously obtained waivers to resume their work during the moratorium.
HHS unveils new policy
Under the new policy, researchers interested in studying pathogens that could cause a pandemic—which include flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome, MERS, Ebola, and other viruses—will be able to apply for federal funding under a new process outlined by HHS. According to the Post, researchers interested in conducting the studies would have to show that there is no other way to answer the research's hypothesis in a way that poses less risk, and that the research's potential benefits would outweigh the potential risks. In addition, an independent expert panel would have to review the research proposal before it is approved.
Collins said only a "handful" of facilities would qualify to conduct such research. "This kind of research can only be conducted in a very few places that have the highest level of containment," he said.
Beth Cameron, VP for global biological policy and programs at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, called HHS' new policy "a step in the right direction," though she cautioned that strong security measures would be needed to guard against the viruses' accidental release and to regulate who is permitted to work on the research.
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist who directs the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, also called the new policy "a small step forward," but expressed concern that the policy might not go far enough to regulate gain of function research. He said such research has "given us some modest scientific knowledge and done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics, and yet risked creating an accidental pandemic." As such, he said he hoped researchers would shy away from conducting such studies.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said some laboratories likely could safely conduct gain of function research, but called for limitations on the information researchers could publish about the work. "If someone finds a way to make the Ebola virus more dangerous, I don't believe that should be available to anybody off the street who could use it for nefarious purposes," he said, adding, "We want to keep some of this stuff on a need-to-know basis" (Bernstein, Washington Post, 12/19; McNeil, New York Times, 12/19).
This holiday season: How to avoid the flu when you fly
Download this infographic to learn about both the obvious and less obvious locations where germs on planes are rampant.