10/20/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

White House Halts Funding On Risky Flu Studies

CHICAGO, Oct 20 (Reuters) - The White House has temporarily stopped funding new research involving the flu and other pathogens in which scientists deliberately make them more transmissible or more deadly.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the government is assessing the potential risks and benefits of so-called "gain-of-function" studies.

The U.S. government said it will pause funding for any new studies that include gain-of-function experiments involving flu, SARS and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS viruses, the White House said in a statement posted on Friday.

It is also asking that those conducting this type of work, whether federally funded or not, to "voluntarily pause" their research while risks and benefits are being reassessed.

Studies involving naturally occurring flu, MERS, and SARS viruses are unaffected "unless there is a reasonable expectation that these tests would increase transmissibility or pathogenicity," the statement said.

Experts criticized the government last month for failing to weigh in on gain-of-function research when it issued new guidelines on so-called dual-use research of concern, pathogens that could be used both for legitimate purposes and for biowarfare or bioterrorism.

Under those guidelines, universities are now in charge of policing such research. Universities that fail to keep the government informed could lose federal funding.

In its latest step, the White House is focusing specifically on "gain of function" studies, the most worrisome subset of dual-use research.

Such studies sparked international debate in late 2011 when the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) asked two leading journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details on mutated strains of the bird flu virus because of fears the studies could be used by bioterrorists.

Earlier this year, scientists formed the Cambridge Working Group with more than 300 signatories, including three Nobel laureates, to call for a moratorium on the creation of such "potential pandemic pathogens" until a rigorous assessment can be conducted.

But the government has been slow to respond, and in July, the National Institutes of Health abruptly dismissed 11 eminent scientists from the 23-member NSABB which advises the government on how and whether research on dangerous pathogens should be conducted.

The White House has since replaced those members. The NSABB will meet on Oct. 22, to begin the process of developing recommendations.

The White House is also calling on National Research Council of the National Academies to convene a scientific symposium focused on the issues associated with gain-of-function research. (Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Richard Chang)



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