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Gain-of-Function Viral Research Unpaused

The US National Institutes of Health has lifted its moratorium on gain-of-function viral research. At the same time, the agency has unveiled a framework for review potential pandemic pathogen research.

In October 2014, the Obama White House suspended funding for gain-of-function studies of the influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses, while a review of the risks and benefits of such research was conducted. ScienceInsider notes that concerns regarding gain-of-function studies cropped up in 2011 when the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Erasmus Medical Center's Ron Fouchier sought to publish a paper describing how they modified the H5N1 bird flu to be more easily transmitted between ferrets. The moratorium also came shortly after incidents of mishandled viral samples at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at an old Food and Drug Administration lab at the NIH were brought to light.

Under the framework, the federal government will review funding proposals for potential pandemic pathogen research based on whether the proposal is scientifically sound, the risk is justified, and there is no other means of performing the work. The applicants also must be at a lab that can safely conduct the research.

"It is very good news for laboratories interested in understanding the threat of natural pathogens to the human population," the Scripps Research Institute's James Paulson tells NPR. He adds that the review process will enable sensible research to take place "while guarding against the creation of pathogens with pandemic potential."