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White House halts research into 'super strains' of infectious diseases

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The funding halt affects future influenza, MERS, and SARS research — and current researchers have been asked to suspend their studies as well

Avian flu wild-type H5N1
Avian flu wild-type H5N1

The White House has halted research examining how diseases like influenza, MERS, and SARS can be more easily transmitted among animals, citing safety concerns. The US will not fund any new research and is encouraging those with existing research to pause their experiments.

There were apparently biosafety "incidents" at federally-funded research centers. As a result, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, is launching "a deliberative process" to assess risks associated with this type of research.

In August, a CDC researcher contaminated samples while rushing to a meeting. And in June, the CDC left anthrax samples unlocked and used expired disinfectant on them. It's not clear from the White House statement if these were the incidents being referred to. A call to Becky Fried, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy wasn't immediately returned.

The risk that viruses and bacteria will become stronger exists in natureCalled "gain of function" research, these studies increase infectious agents' ability to cause disease, or make it easier for them to spread. Right now, these types of studies are ongoing in influenza, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, and sudden acute respiratory syndrome. The White House is particularly concerned with research expected to create versions of those pathogens that increase airborne transmission.

The risk that viruses and bacteria will become stronger or easier to transmit exists in nature. Scientists do gain of function studies in order to evaluate the risks and figure out how to fight future mutations. "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," the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins said in a statement. "These studies, however, also entail biosafety and biosecurity risks, which need to be understood better."

This isn't the first time gain-of-function research has been halted. In January 2012, international researchers issued a moratorium on testing H5N1, the bird flu virus, and didn't resume testing until 2013.

This isn't the first time gain of function studies have been haltedThe National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity will meet on October 22 to debate the issues and begin making recommendations. The NSABB is the official Federal adviser for oversight on these areas of research. In addition, the National Research Council will be asked to create a scientific symposium to debate the benefits and risks, as well as a second one, later, to discuss NSABB's draft recommendations.

The final recommendations from the NSABB "will inform the development and adoption of a new U.S. Government policy regarding gain-of-function research," according to the White House statement.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that the halt affected MRSA research, not MERS research. We apologize for the error.