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Viral Research Guidelines

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has issued new guidelines for funding controversial viral research, ScienceInsider reports. It adds that this may end the two-year funding moratorium on some studies.

Issues surrounding gain-of-function research cropped up in 2011 when two research groups reported on their work to make the H5N1 influenza virus more transmissible through the air, leading some to worry about both the consequences of accidental release and possible use in bioterrorism. This led to a yearlong pause by researchers themselves on studying H5N1 influenza.

But after additional gain-of-function experiments and incidents at pathogen labs, the White House suspended funding certain gain-of-function studies in 2014 while the risks and benefits of such research were weighed. In particular, there were concerns about experiments involving the influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses.

The new OSTP policy hews closely to recommendations an advisory committee made last May, ScienceInsider says. In particular, it says some research proposals that may produce potential pandemic pathogen have to go through a pre-funding review mechanism. According to the OSTP, this review process has to ensure that the projects meet eight principles — such as the ability to perform the work safely and that it is ethically justified — as well as assess the projects' risks and benefits and develop risk mitigation plans.

Harvard University's Marc Lipsitch, a critic of gain-of-function research, tells ScienceInsider that he "will be watching to see … whether the reviews are robust and free of conflicts of interest real or perceived." Virus researchers like Erasmus University Medical Center's Ronald Fouchier, meanwhile, add that they are hopeful that their projects will be funded once again.