UW-Madison scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka has once again halted controversial flu research, this time in response to a White House request that researchers stop such work during a federal review of the risks and benefits.
Kawaoka’s creation of an altered H5N1 flu virus in his lab led to a yearlong moratorium on such projects in 2012 after critics said the viruses could escape from the lab or be replicated by bioterrorists.
Kawaoka resumed the H5N1 work this May, after approval by federal and university officials.
But the Obama administration said Oct. 17 it would postpone federal funding for similar new studies and asked researchers to pause ongoing studies while the government develops a new policy.
The announcement covers “gain-of-function,” or GOF, studies — experiments that enhance the ability of a pathogen to cause disease — involving influenza, SARS and MERS viruses.
Kawaoka said he complied with the request. “In my laboratory, we paused all GOF experiments that might enhance pathogenicity or transmissibility,” he said in an email.
It’s not clear how much of his research is affected. Roughly 50 percent of his work involves gain-of-function in some way, said Rebecca Moritz, a campus biosafety manager. But “additional guidance is needed from the federal government to determine which of Dr. Kawaoka’s studies are ultimately impacted, and what it will mean for the funding of those projects,” Moritz said in a statement.
The White House announcement comes in response to incidents this year involving anthrax, flu and smallpox at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
“The incidents occurring at federal facilities this summer have underscored the importance of laboratory safety, and they also prompted calls for a reassessment of the risks and benefits that are associated with research involving dangerous pathogens,” Samuel Stanley, chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, said during a meeting of the group Oct. 22.
The advisory board will make recommendations that the government will consider in forming a policy on conducting the research by next year.
Critics of Kawaoka’s research — including Tom Jeffries, a member of UW-Madison’s Institutional Biosafety Committee — say it could do more harm than good because the viruses could escape from the lab.
“You’re increasing the probability of having a pandemic rather than decreasing the probability,” Jeffries told the State Journal in June.
But Kawaoka said his flu research helps authorities prepare for a pandemic by identifying dangerous mutations to watch for and supporting the development of drugs and vaccines.
“The goal of my research is to improve global health,” Kawaoka said at the advisory board meeting.