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White House Halts Gain-Of-Function Research

Recent biosecurity failures prompt a hiatus and review of the controversial research subject

by Andrea Widener
October 27, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 43

While it reviews safety procedures, the White House is temporarily shutting down all federal research exploring how certain viruses and bacteria become more dangerous.

“During this pause, the National Institutes of Health will not provide new funding for any projects involving these experiments,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins says. NIH “encourages those currently conducting this type of work—whether federally funded or not—to voluntarily pause their research while the government determines how to proceed.”

The “gain of function” research at issue explores the steps viruses or bacteria would need to become more easily transferable or deadly. It is most well-known in the case of experiments to make the influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses more easily infectious through respiratory contact.

Gain-of-function research is controversial in part because of the risks of a dangerous disease falling into the wrong hands. But the Administration’s move was prompted by several recent biosecurity problems at federal labs, which failed to safely contain dangerous pathogens. For example, a sample of a highly contagious avian flu virus was accidentally shipped between federal labs without proper precautions. No one was infected or harmed in the incidents.

Along with the restrictions, the Office of Science & Technology Policy announced a two-part review of this type of research. The first will be conducted by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal advisory committee, which met on the issue last week. For the second part, the National Academy of Sciences will hold two symposia to discuss the research and review the biosecurity board’s draft recommendations.


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