Ebola is not the only virus on the government’s mind these days. Earlier today (H/T ScienceInsider) the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services announced a pause in new funding for gain-of-function research on influenza, SARS and MERS. Gain-of-function research tries to make existing viruses more pathogenetic or transmissible. Additionally, the government will encourage those involved in current gain-of-function research to pause said research.
The government has also initiated a deliberation process it intends to complete in the next year. Both the National Research Council and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity will work on recommendations that would inform a federal policy on gain-of-function research.
This is not the first time the government has tried to address the matter of gain-of-function research. However, the current focus on Ebola and the recent problems with lab security of viruses could (and perhaps should) boost the scrutiny of this process. As ScienceInsider has reported that many groups have been advocating for some kind of pause or deliberative process to think through gain-of-function studies. But there could be resistance, if the incredulous Tweet included at the end of the piece is any indication. It is a Tweet, but it mischaracterizes the nature of the pause. It does not call for a moratorium on deadly pathogen research, but a pause on research that would increase the lethality or ease of spread of certain pathogens. Unfortunately, the current perceptions of viruses and efforts to stop them make me think that most will not try to properly parse the nature of the proposed pause.