Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy stunned scientists when it announced a moratorium of federally-funded research of enhanced viral strains of influenza, SARS, and MERS. The decision came about following a series of public safety concerns, should these souped-up viruses escape from the lab.
During this time, no new federal grants will be given for this type of research, and existing projects have been asked to suspend their work. The policy is expected to remain in place while the White House deliberates with the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies to discuss how this type of research should proceed. The recommendations are expected to be revealed sometime in 2015.
These studies take viral strains and give them properties they wouldn’t otherwise have, in what is called a “gain of function” (GOF). For instance, a paper published in 2012 found that only five mutations are needed to make the avian H5N1 flu virus transmissible through the air among mammals. This sparked a serious discussion among biologists about whether these experiments are too risky too proceed, or if the benefit of the information gained outweighed that risk.
If that GOF H5N1 strain were released to the general public either accidentally or as an act of bioterrorism, it could potentially cause a pandemic. This is generally the main concern among those who are critical of GOF experiments. Those in favor of GOF research are not looking for carte blanche viral enhancement, but claim that by understanding what the virus is capable of, they will be better able to develop drugs and vaccines to combat life-threatening illness.
Deliberations with NSABB began on Wednesday (October 22). While this moratorium was not designed to halt research with naturally-occurring viral strains, some researchers expressed concern that the White House’s broad wording has impacted necessary research.
During the vaccine and antiviral development process, the experimental medication is given to an infected animal model. Sometimes the drug doesn’t work, and virus can quickly reproduce and evolve defenses against it, resulting in an unintentional GOF. This is a very common occurrence and simply part of the drug development process, but these labs have also been shut down.
St. Jude’s Stacey Schultz-Cherry spoke to the committee about her influenza surveillance work for the World Health Organization. She helps track strains of the virus and determine which ones pose the biggest threat; information that helps design flu vaccines. However, the National Institute of Health has directed her to stop her work, which could have serious implications for public health this flu season.
“They don’t want the ban to impact seasonal flu, but there’s no doubt that it does,” she told the committee. “What it has just stopped are vaccine-escape studies. It absolutely will trickle down to public health.”
The next deliberation phase will be led by the NRC and Institute of Medicine. Those meetings are currently scheduled for December 15 and 16.