On Friday, the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a mandatory moratorium on so-called gain-of-function research. This includes work that creates new "enhanced" pathogens, agents that are more readily transmissible or infectious or otherwise better than their counterparts in the non-laboratory world.
The moratorium includes the complete withdrawal of funding for such research, as well as strong words encouraging scientists, federally funded or otherwise, "to voluntarily pause their research while risks and benefits are being reassessed." The White House so far doesn't have the power to just straight-up shutter research it doesn't like.
The ban on gain-of-function studies, a much more wide-reaching and rigid version of a ban enacted in 2012, is being presented as temporary, as policymakers and hopefully a few actual scientists attempt to craft a unified federal policy on GOF research. Said research, as defined by NIH director Francis Collins, is anything "that increases the ability of any of these infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility among mammals by respiratory droplets."
In particular, the ban will affect GOF studies on influenza, MERS, and SARS. "NIH has funded such studies because they help define the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, enable the assessment of the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, and inform public health and preparedness efforts," Collins said.
"These studies, however, also entail biosafety and biosecurity risks, which need to be understood better," she continued, echoing a statement from the US Department of Health and Human Services's Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response:
Gain-of-function studies, or research that improves the ability of a pathogen to cause disease, help define the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, thereby enabling assessment of the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, informing public health and preparedness efforts, and furthering medical countermeasure development. Gain-of-function studies may entail biosafety and biosecurity risks; therefore, the risks and benefits of gain-of-function research must be evaluated, both in the context of recent U.S. biosafety incidents …
Said incidents were indeed some pretty severe fuckups, one involving the the sloppy handling of anthrax by workers at the CDC, and another not long after in which a dangerous strain of avian influenza was shipped to a Department of Agriculture poultry lab on accident. Both lapses occurred within the CDC's high-containment facilities.
The 2012 moratorium, prompted by a widespread outcry following the release of two papers describing the creation of an influenza superstrain, was eventually relaxed after the WHO introduced new guidelines for GOF research. So, there is some reason to hope that this is indeed temporary and researchers at the CDC and elsewhere can get back to work helping us avoid the sorts of plagues that might make the current Ebola outbreak look like a rougher than usual flu season.