Advisory Board Seeks Clarification On Gain-Of-Function Research ‘Pause’

Happy American Thanksgiving, everyone.

Back in October the U.S. government announced a ‘pause’ in gain-of-function (GOF) research.  GOF research works with existing viruses, exploring how they can become more virulent and/or transmissible.  Per the official announcement, the pause – limited to federal funding – covers the following:

“New USG funding will not be released for gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route. The research funding pause would not apply to characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses, unless the tests are reasonably anticipated to increase transmissibility and/or pathogenicity.”
Even the layman writing this post can see there is some language – like ‘reasonably anticipated’ – that would be open to interpretation.  The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) met earlier this week about the pause (H/T ScienceInsider).  The meeting focused on a statement about the pause, which has not yet been finalized.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) staff have been working with researchers to clarify matters, according to Dr. Dixon, who spoke at the meeting.  Researchers expressed their concerns that the apparent breadth of the pause could have a chilling effect on the field, with possible impacts on public health.  As the NSABB has a year to develop its recommendations, it’s possible that the pause could be lengthy.  While a revised policy may not be ideal, I think greater communication about how NIH and other agencies are implementing the pause is necessary.  What’s in this new FAQ is nice, but it could benefit from follow-up documents from funding agencies with more specifics about how to have research reviewed, and (if needed) exceptions granted).