The Moratorium Was 'Unprecedented.' Now It's Over

Feds lift ban on funding research into enhanced potential pandemic pathogens
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 19, 2017 2:09 PM CST
The Moratorium Was 'Unprecedented.' Now It's Over
A 3D-generated close-up of MERS virus.   (Getty Images)

A door that was shut three years ago has been opened, though how far is unclear: In October 2014, the feds put a moratorium on funding studies on germs that could be altered to cause pandemics, or enhanced potential pandemic pathogens. On Tuesday, the National Institutes of Health announced that pause is over—though funding will only be awarded to research that a government scientific panel deems worth the risk. The New York Times details the new framework for determining those proposals that pass muster. Researchers will have to, among other things: prove their lab is secure; be working on a virus that could imperil our health; end up with actionable knowledge (say, that would enable the creation of a vaccine); and establish there's no safer way to get at that knowledge. "We see this as a rigorous policy," says NIH head Dr. Francis Collins.

  • The ferret study: NPR reports that scientists in 2011 disclosed that they had created H5N1, an airborne bird flu strain that passed easily among ferrets, "the stand-in for people in flu studies," and which biosecurity experts estimated could kill as many as 40 million people if it got loose. Controversy erupted over whether the risk was worth the knowledge gained, and a voluntary moratorium on the bird flu work went into effect in early 2012.
  • CDC mishaps: Then came 2014 gaffes at the hands of the CDC like this one and this one, and the White House moved ahead in October of that year with its "funding pause"—which related specifically to research focused on the flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). NPR termed the pause "unusual," while Science called it "unprecedented."
  • How much of a pause was the pause: Collins tells the Times that 21 projects that were underway were affected by the moratorium, though 10 of those, relating to flu or MERS, were granted exceptions over the subsequent years. As for the other 11, Science quotes Collins as saying the studies are "probably obsolete," and that those researchers who wish to resume would likely begin the proposal process anew.
  • What the new funding regulations apply to: Not just flu, SARS, and MERS, but all potential pandemic pathogens, says Collins, who gives the Times the hypothetical of research into an airborne Ebola virus.
  • The supporters: Those in favor of such research say that altering viruses in a lab setting deepens our knowledge of what types of genetic changes could result in a pathogen becoming more deadly, more contagious, or both. And NBC News says the threat is real, citing flu experts who put the chance of a new flu pandemic at 100%. NBC says the last major strain of flu to emerge was H1N1 "swine" flu in 2009, and a new one comes every two decades or so.
  • And the critics: "The engineering is not what I’m worried about. Accident after accident has been the result of human mistakes," Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch tells STAT. He welcomes the creation of the formal process, but he thinks the outcome should be uniform when proposals around genetically modified viruses are presented: They should be "disallow[ed]." They "risk creating an accidental pandemic" and "have done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemic."
(More pandemic stories.)

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