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Not Everyone Is Happy About the White House's Ban on Superbugs

Gain-of-function research is more necessary than one might think.
Image: Dion Hinchcliffe/Flickr

Earlier this month, the White House enacted a theoretically temporary moratorium on so-called gain-of-function (GOF) research. This is work in which a disease-causing pathogen, usually a virus, is given some sort of artificial genetic boost. It might be made more virulent and dangerous, for example, or it might be made more easily transmissible.

A lot of reactions (if not most) I've seen to said order, which cuts off federal funding for GOF research and strongly encourages everyone else to stop such research voluntarily, can be summarized in a single word: duh. Not doing this just seems like common sense, sure, but there's a whole other side to the issue. GOF studies are done for a reason, after all.


Last week, at public meeting of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a number of researchers expressed concern over the moratorium, complaining that that development of seasonal flu vaccines and antiviral drugs might be hurt by the ban, according to They have a point.

Flu vaccines in particular are a complicated sort of alchemy. The strain is chosen by the WHO and it's based on a number of factors, including the transmissibility of different flu strains and how likely given strains are to mutate into something more dangerous. Those determinations are made in part with information gleaned from GOF research.

They don't want the ban to impact seasonal flu, but there's no doubt that it does.

"They don't want the ban to impact seasonal flu, but there's no doubt that it does," Stacey Schultz-Cherry, an infectious-disease specialist that recently received a stop-work order form the National Institutes of Health, told Nature. "What it has just stopped are vaccine-escape studies. It absolutely will trickle down to public health."

Schultz-Cherry echoes a small chorus of researchers concerned about not only their work and careers but the public health near-future. As a result of the protests, the NSABB is weighing possible exemptions. But, given that labs are already receiving stop-work orders, it may in some cases be too late. Studying a potentially lethal virus is rarely the sort of thing that can just simply stopped and restarted like a YouTube video.

In a sense, the calculus is in weighing public sentiment (fuck no, stop making superbugs and don't ever do it again) against public health (the flu kills anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000 people per year in the United States). It would hardly be the first time.