Bioethics Blogs

White House suspends enhanced pathogen research

Past research made the H5N1 virus transmissible in ferrets.

Past research has made the H5N1 virus transmissible in ferrets.

Sara Reardon

As the US public frets about the recent transmission of Ebola to two Texas healthcare workers, the US government has turned an eye on dangerous viruses that could become far more widespread if they escaped from the lab. On 17 October, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced a mandatory moratorium on research aimed at making pathogens more deadly, known as gain-of-function research.

Under the moratorium, government agencies will not fund research that attempts to make natural pathogens more transmissible through the air or more deadly in the body. Researchers who have already been funded to do such projects are asked to voluntarily pause work while two non-regulatory bodies, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and the National Research Council, assess its risks. The ban specifically mentions research that would enhance influenza, SARS and MERS. Other types of research on naturally occurring strains of these viruses would still be funded.

This is the second time that gain-of-function research has been suspended. In 2012, 39 scientists working on influenza agreed to a voluntary moratorium after the publication of two papers demonstrating that an enhanced H5N1 influenza virus could be transmitted between mammals through respiratory droplets. The publications drew a storm of controversy centered around the danger that they might give terrorists the ability to create highly effective bioweapons, or that the viruses might accidentally escape the lab. Research resumed after regulatory agencies and entities such as the World Health Organization laid out guidelines for ensuring the safety and security of flu research.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.