Enhanced pathogens

Written December, 2014

On October 17, 2014 the White House suspended research that would enhance the pathogenicity of viruses such as influenza, SARS, and MERS (often referred to as gain-of-function (GOF) research). Gain-of-function research, in itself, is not harmful; in fact, it is used to provide vital insights into viruses and how to treat them. But when it is used to increase mammalian transmissibility and virulence, the altered viruses pose serious security and biosafety risks.


Those fighting to resume research claim that GOF research on viruses is both safe and important to science, insisting that no other form of research would be as productive. Those who argue against this type of research note that the biosafety risks far outweigh the benefits. They point to hard evidence of human fallibility and the history of laboratory accidents and warn that the release of such a virus into the general population would have devastating effects.

Below, you will find resources on the a ban imposed in 2012 and it’s follow-up as well as information on the 2014 moratorium and reactions to it. We’ve provided information on all aspects of the risk-reward analysis as well as policy that’s being researched and written with the help of the scientific community. We have also included the perspective of those who oppose the White House’s decision to stop GOF research.


White House Suspends Enhanced Pathogen Research (Nature)

Doing Diligence to Assess the Risks and Benefits of Life Sciences Gain-of-Function Research (OSTP)
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announcement of a mandatory moratorium on gain-of-function research.
U.S. Government Gain-of-Function Deliberative Process and Research Funding Pause on Selected

Gain-of-Function Research Involving Influenza, MERS, and SARS Viruses
Notice from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

Influenza Virus

Previous bans on GOF research: 

Scientists Call For 60-Day Suspension of Mutant Flu Research (Nature)
Original 2012 ban on enhancing the flu virus.

Work Resumes on Lethal Flu Strains (Nature)
Works resumes following 2012 ban after policy talks.

Editorials and news stories on the risk-reward analysis: 

Risks and Benefits of Gain-of-Function Experiments with Pathogens of Pandemic Potential (mBio)

An Epistemological Perspective on the Value of Gain-of-Function Experiments Involving Pathogens with Pandemic Potential (mBio)
Two editorials arguing against arbitrary abandonment of GOF research and suggesting that we can only move forward with enhanced biosafety protocols.

Wider Attention for GOF Science (Science)
An editorial about the complexity and stakeholders involved in GOF policy.

Gain of Function or Gain of Risk?: The Problem Behind Research On Enhanced Pathogens
A blog post from the Medical Literature Society at UCLA discussing the risk-reward dilemma.

Preventing a Man-Made Pandemic (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
A piece on building confidence about the safety of GOF research.

Anti-GOF pieces:

Scientists Condemn “Crazy, Dangerous” Creation of Deadly Airborne Flu Virus (The Guardian)
Early reactions to UW-Madison’s Kawaoka lab’s work to build a virus resembling the 1918 Spanish flu from fragments of wild bird flu strains.

Experts Air Concerns About Federal Gain-of-Function Review (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the U of Minnesota)
Scientists raise concerns about the thoroughness and transparency of an ongoing review ordered by the White House.

Scientists defenfing GOF research: 

Researchers Rail Against Moratorium on Risky Virus Experiments (Science)
Researchers argue that the White House moratorium has gone too far.

Why the Government Shouldn’t Be Stopping Flu Research (Popular Mechanics)
A scientist argues that the White House’s decision to temporarily halt GOF research will slow the quest for answers.

Viral-Research Moratorium Called Too Broad (Nature)

Creating policy on GOF research: 

Potential Risks and Benefits of Gain-of-Function Research: Summary of a Workshop (National Academies, 2015)
Summary of the National Academies research symposium on GOF research.

Gain of Function: Request for Advice From Scientific Community on Revision of EU Export Control Regulation
Request for feedback from scientists on an EU biosecurity regulation that could interfere with GOF research.

Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk
Preliminary information on plans to address GOF research and the policy regulating it.

A history of lab accidents that threaten public safety:

Flu inspectors

After Lapses, C.D.C. Admits a Lax Culture at Labs (NYT)
Sloppy handling of anthrax in CDC labs boosts the claim that GOF research is too dangerous.

Lab Incidents Lead to Safety Crackdown at CDC (Science)
News from July 2014 that the CDC closed two labs and halted some biological shipments in the wake of several  incidents in which highly pathogenic microbes were mishandled by federal laboratories.
Other reports from Science about the mishandling of samples can be found here and here.