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Pandemic series: federal funding of "gain of function research of concern" in 2016-18?

In an effort to better understand the pathways by which H5N1 (and other flue), MERS, SARS, etc., may become more dangerous, several research groups have begun to deliberately engineer viruses to increase their virulence, transmissibility, or other qualities.

This "gain of function" (GoF) research may help prepare use for naturally-occuring variants of these diseases and enhance our ability to generate better vaccines, etc. However, there are obvious potential dangers as well: an accidental release, or deliberate theft of such organisms could create a potential pandemic; even the information published about such efforts could increase the probability of bioterror or bioerror events.

In October 2014, the White House issued a funding pause on such experiments involving influenza and coronaviruses, partly in response to a statement by the Cambridge Working Group that called for a curtailment of experiments to create potential pandemic pathogens in the laboratory, pending a risk and benefit assessment. The White House charged the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB) with commissioning such a report.

After the completion of this report and several high-level meetings, the NSABB composed a set of recommendations; see the draft report here.

These recommendations do not call for a moratorium on the funding of any particular types of research, but for various levels of additional oversight in the funding of "gain of function research of concern," (GoFRoC) which they define as a subset of GoF research that is

  • highly transmissible and likely capable of wide and uncontrollable spread in human populations; and
  • highly virulent and likely to cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans.

The report calls for "additional, multidisciplinary review, prior to determining whether they are acceptable for funding. If funded, such projects should be subject to ongoing oversight at the Federal and institutional levels" and calls for "An external advisory body that is designed for transparency and public engagement should be utilized as part of the U.S. government’s ongoing evaluation of oversight policies for GOF research of concern."

Many elements of this whole issue (and see here for a good summary) could form the basis of questions. Here we focus on the bottom line:

By the end of 2018 will US federal funding go to 2 or more research projects performing GOF research of concern?

Resolution is positive if two of more distinct federal grants have been fully approved that fund GoFRoC research, i.e. have been identified in review as this type of research, received (we can hope) additional levels of scrutiny, and received approval. This may be identified by media report, by presence in an accessible research grant database, or other credible source.

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