Should scientists be allowed to create mutant viruses deadlier than natural ones? The White House waded into this controversy today with a surprising announcement to cut all funding to such studies, pending a thorough review of this risky research.
The announcement is a big blow to a small but active contingent of scientists who work on these studies. The argument for so-called "gain of function" research is that it helps us anticipate how viruses naturally evolve to become nastier. But this research is also risky because, well, viruses can escape from the lab. A number of recent high-profile screw-ups, such as misplaced smallpox vials, illustrate just how easily human error can slip into the equation. And unfortunately, there are also malicious intents to consider, too.
A statement posted on the website of the White House's Office of Science and Technology policy says that gain of function studies on three viruses, flu, SARS, and MERS, will be affected. The federal government, which is a major source of funding for biomedical research, will no longer fund such studies and asks all researchers, regardless of their funding source, to voluntarily pause their work.
In the meantime, National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the National Research Council will review the risks and benefits of this research. The White House says it expects to have a final policy in place in a year. [Office of Science and Technology Policy via Science]
Top image: Influenza virus/CDC