UK scientists criticize White House ban on studies that increase virus potency or transmissibility

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 21 October 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g6378
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1London

UK scientists have criticized a ban by the US administration on studies that increase the potency or transmissibility of viruses, saying that such studies were needed to increase understanding of viruses and to improve vaccines against them.

The ban, announced unexpectedly by the White House late last week, came after a voluntary moratorium on such studies that ended in 2013 without resolving the argument between those who said that generating “superstrains” of viruses was too risky and those who defended them as a valuable tool, as long as appropriate precautions against release were in place. The White House acted ahead of a meeting on 22 October of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

Three UK scientists at a briefing in London on 20 October held at the Science Media Centre said that the two published studies into H5N1 flu that started the scare had already produced positive results, including a better understanding of why H5N1 spread easily in birds but not in humans. One of the three scientists, Wendy Barclay, of Imperial College London, said the conclusion was that a virus that had evolved to be transmissible in the crowded conditions of a hen house was too unstable to transmit in humans, where it would need to be stable enough to float through the air, reach the target cells in the nose, and replicate.

Why was this important? “What it means is we could do very simple screening tests,” she said. “We don’t have to sequence the virus; we have to look at the viruses in nature in the pig farms and the poultry houses and ask how stable they are. It’s really simply done. And it can tell you when a virus is getting closer to transmissibility in humans.”

John McCauley, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Influenza at Mill Hill, north London, said that this finding could be important in planning for future flu vaccines. Twice a year he meets with the heads of the other five WHO collaborating centres to decide which flu strains should be protected against in the vaccine for the current season, but the group also advises on which animal flu viruses should be developed into candidate vaccines to meet possible future threats. “If they should spread, then we will have something on the shelf, and we can save ourselves some time,” he said. The work now being proscribed by the US administration had, he said, shown that virus stability was important and that animal viruses that were stable should therefore be given higher priority as possible vaccine targets.

Barclay added that “gain of function” experiments, as the “superflu” studies were more properly called, could be used to make live attenuated flu vaccine—of the type already approved for children—work effectively in a pandemic situation by making it more stable. She said, “We also have a debate going on that if the H5N1 virus becomes more transmissible, will it retain its virulence, or will it tone down? When you talk to the modelers about this and ask what percentage mortality they use, they’re using about 20%. Why? They have no idea; they’ve plucked the 20% figure out of the air and based a pandemic response plan on it. If we understand what makes a bird flu transmissible we can make our plans robust.” Finally, she said, what applied to flu also applied to severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, both of which were included in the US proscription.

Michael Skinner, also of Imperial College London, warned that critics of the gain of function studies focused on their hypothetical threats and ignored the extant threats of the pathogens in nature. “I feel that if we’re to protect ourselves from future pandemics we must recognize those threats and be careful not to require virologists to work with one hand tied behind their backs,” he said.

It was not clear what effect, if any, the US ban would have in Europe, but the panelists thought the threat was real. Both the studies that triggered the alarms were funded by the US National Institutes of Health, one in the US and one in the Netherlands. These studies could not have been done if no federal funding of the experiments had been permitted. Skinner warned that publishing the results of such studies could become harder and virologists could become discouraged from entering the field.

The White House plan envisages a six month pause on research funding and a further three months to decide what to do.1 But Barclay said that the original voluntary moratorium, to which she had signed up as a gesture of goodwill, had also been designed so that the issue could be discussed. “But nobody did talk about it much, and no decisions were made,” she said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g6378


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