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The White House Just Asked Scientists to Stop Trying to Make Diseases More Deadly

New funding is being suspended, and anyone who’s already been paid to do such work is being asked to stop.

(Friso Gentsch/dpa/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

In a few notable instances in the past couple of months, disease research and control specialists in the U.S. have slipped up. The National Institute of Health lost some vials of smallpox. Two CDC labs almost dosed their own workers with anthrax and avian flu. The CDC has come under attack for letting one of Dallas' potential Ebola patients get on an airplane and another on a cruise ship (even though that worked out in the end).

In the shadow of all this, the White House has decided that maaaaybe it's time to just take a little breather on the already murky scientific field of “trying to make diseases worse than normal.”

On Friday, the Office of Science and Technology Policy officially barred government funding for scientists who are conducting research aimed at making diseases more deadly or more transmissible, says Nature.

That line of scientific research, known by the delightfully dry term “gain-of-function research,” is already one that makes a lot of people nervous. But, the thinking goes, if scientists know how a disease might morph, then maybe they can get out ahead of it.

Previously, the government was funding work to make diseases such as the flu, SARS or MERS more potent, says Nature, but all that's to come to an end. Anyone who's already been paid to do such work is being asked to stop.

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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