U.S. announces new policy for pathogens that could cause a pandemic
By Lenny Bernstein
The government lifted a three-year moratorium Tuesday on funding for research into ways that certain viruses can be made more virulent and transmissible, announcing a new plan for assessing applications to study these and other dangerous pathogens.
The new policy for pathogens capable of creating a pandemic will allow researchers who want to study them to apply for funding through the new process outlined by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The end of the moratorium applies to research on the SARS, MERS and influenza viruses. The October 2014 pause was put in place after researchers in Wisconsin and the Netherlands sparked a debate by announcing in 2011 that they had made the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus more contagious in mammals.
Shortly before the ban, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged that lab personnel had been exposed to anthrax and that a lethal avian flu virus had been sent to a lab that had asked for a less deadly strain.
In a briefing for reporters Monday, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, the main government funder for biological research, estimated that only a “handful” of facilities would qualify to conduct this kind of research, which is generally aimed at understanding how viruses mutate and developing vaccines.
“This kind of research can only be conducted in a very few places that have the highest level of containment,” Collins said.
Collins also disclosed that during the moratorium, 10 of the 21 research efforts that had been stopped obtained waivers to resume their work. Those waivers applied to five MERS and five flu experiments, he said.
The new policy for “potential pandemic pathogens” would apply to the three viruses and others that researchers might want to investigate, such as Ebola.
“This is a way of regularizing a rigorous process that we really want to make sure we are doing right,” Collins said.
Other pathogens are covered under the government’s policy for
Dual Use Research of Concern, which covers life sciences research that, if misused, might threaten public health, national security and the environment.
Beth Cameron, vice president for global biological policy and programs at the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative, called having a plan in place “a step in the right direction.” But she stressed that safety would still depend largely on strong security measures at each lab to protect against an accidental release and govern who is allowed to work on the experiments.
Mitgating risk requires “knowing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what the benefits of the research are,” she said. And it means understanding the risk to the public while you’re doing it.”
Still, Cameron said, the United States now becomes what she believes may be the only nation in the world with such a plan, which highlights the need for international discussion of this issue.
She said she is concerned about the “increased ability to use tools in order to create viruses and bacteria that can evade counter-measures.”