CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Tuesday lifted a 2014 temporary ban on funding research involving the flu and other pathogens in which scientists deliberately make them more transmissible or more deadly.
The ban covered federal funding for any new so-called “gain-of-function” experiments that enhance pathogens such as Avian influenza, SARS and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS viruses.
It followed a series of safety breaches at federal laboratories involving the handling of anthrax and avian flu that raised questions about lab safety at high-security national laboratories.
The concern with “gain-of-function” research is that while the work may produce useful insights about how a pathogen might naturally evolve and become more deadly, laboratory-enhanced pathogens could be used for biowarfare or bioterrorism if they fell into the wrong hands.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) said in a statement on Tuesday that such work is important to help scientists understand and develop effective countermeasures “against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health.”
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said in a statement the funding ban was lifted after the Department of Health and Human Services issued a framework to guide decisions over work involving enhanced pathogens with the potential to cause a pandemic.
That framework lays out an extensive review process for federally funded research on enhanced pathogens - considering both the benefits of the research and the potential safety risks. The process will involve several levels of review with a wide range of experts.
Dr. Sam Stanley, president of Stony Brook University and chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which provided guidance on the new policy, noted the world’s deadliest pathogens are evolving naturally. He said research is needed to understand and prevent devastating pandemics, such as the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic that killed some 50 million people.
“I believe nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead,” Stanley said in an email, adding “basic research on these agents by laboratories that have shown they can do this work safely is key to global security.”
Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said he is concerned the framework does not include a clear process for analysing the risks and benefits of such experiments.
“Does the benefit of this outweigh the risk and how do we determine that?”
Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Chris Reese