In DepthBiosecurity

Flu study raises questions about U.S. ban

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Science  11 Sep 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6253, pp. 1153
DOI: 10.1126/science.349.6253.1153

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A new study that supercharges influenza viruses used to make vaccines questions a U.S. government moratorium on just such research. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who is at the center of a longstanding controversy about so-called "gain-of-function" research, led the experiments, which were completed before the moratorium began in October 2014. Kawaoka contends that the work underscores that the ban—which includes both a "funding pause" and a request that investigators voluntarily suspend related work—casts too wide a net and hinders low-risk research that can benefit public health. In this study, Kawaoka's team showed a way to streamline the production of influenza vaccines, which could be critical during a pandemic and also assist manufacturers of seasonal vaccines. Basically, the influenza viruses used to make vaccines have a backbone of six genes that stay the same each year and support two genes for surface proteins that constantly change. Kawaoka and co-workers engineered a backbone that produces higher yields of the surface proteins in both mammalian cell and egg culture systems. The U.S. government currently is reviewing gain-of-function research and plans to keep the moratorium in place until at least spring 2006.