Saturday, October 25, 2014

NIH Places Moratorium on "High Risk" Research

    On October 17th, the U.S. government announced that it would temporarily stop funding for gain-of-function viral research projects, amid fears that such research will increase the risk of a potential outbreak should the virus  escape the lab. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said Friday that as of now the National Institutes of Health will not fund any new research proposals that might make three particular viruses -- SARS, MERS, and influenza-- more virulent or contagious.

      Scientists, many of whom say they have received cease-and-desist letters from the NIH, contend that this halt on funding will impede critical public health research. In fact, the order has already affected several research projects in progress, including one promising study looking to create a version of MERS that can infect mice so as to use mice as models to study the disease further (at the moment, according to scientist Kanta Subbarao of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there is no small animal model to study the disease, which has the potential for an impending outbreak). Researchers have also complained that the moratorium is too broad and does not clearly outline what can and can't be done-- the wording is confusing because viruses are always mutating and therefore always becoming potentially more virulent. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, remarked that it is "difficult to determine how much mutation deliberately created by scientists might be 'reasonably anticipated' to make a virus more dangerous." In fact, he says, there is no hard evidence that gain-of-function pathogen research is higher risk than other pathogen research.

    Some scientists and policy makers, however, have expressed satisfaction with the moratorium-- they say that there needs to be more careful risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis of research that could potentially increase the virulence of a virus. This is an opportunity, they say, to reevaluate lab safety procedure and ways for preventing accidents that could lead to pandemics of new, more virulent, or newly transmissible pathological agents.

  A key question here is what is prompting this action by the federal government at this particular moment in time? According to Sara Reardon of, this sudden action "seems to be a response to renewed lobbying by gain-of-function critics who wanted such work suspended and others who sought to evaluate its risks and benefits without disrupting existing research."Officials estimate the deliberations over this question will take over a year. In the meantime, what effect could this have on the trajectory of research into basic pathogen science and its translation into options for prevention and therapy?

By Kasiemobi Udo-okoye


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