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Pause and Deliberate

The White House has suspended funding for new studies into certain gain-of-function experiments involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses, as it undertakes a "deliberative process to assess the potential risks and benefits associated" with such studies, according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In addition to that suspension in funding, it is also encouraging those currently conducting such research — whether federally funded or not — to "voluntarily pause their research" while a review is undertaken and a new federal policy is devised.

Though the debate over such experiments has split the scientific community, the announcement was applauded by opponents of gain-of-function research. "The government has finally seen the light," Peter Hale, executive director of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, told The New York Times. "This is what we have all been waiting for and campaigning for. I shall sleep better tonight."

A different perspective was offered by Boston University microbiologist Paul Duprex, a leader of Scientists for Science, a group of scientists that favor such research. He told Science Insider that while he is "not a fan of blanket bans," there is "precedent" for a pause, adding that he is looking forward to "the presentation of hard evidence and the discussion of the data."

The pause in funding and review comes less than a month after the White House released a policy on guiding how dual-use research of concern — such as work reconstructing the 1918 flu virus or making an avian flu strain more easily transmitted — should be overseen. That policy focused on experiments involving 15 specific agents and toxins, such as Bacillus anthracis, the Ebola virus, and Yersinia pestis, that aim to make them more harmful, more contagious, or resistant to therapies. But as the Nature News Blog pointed out at the time, the policy didn't cover gain-of-function research, and some critics said the rules were too weak.

The OSTP said the deliberative process will include the participation of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the National Research Council of the National Academies. The NSABB, which hadn't met since 2012 — but was called back into action earlier this year amid lab safety mistakes involving anthrax, influenza, and smallpox — will meet this Wednesday to debate the issue and begin the process of developing recommendations. The White House expects to lift the funding pause after a federal policy is issued based on the deliberative process, which it anticipates happening next year.