News Scan for Oct 17, 2014

US suspends GOF research funding
Viral outbreaks in Pacific
Aedes mosquitoes in LA

US suspends funding for 'gain-of-function' studies of flu, MERS, SARS

The Obama administration announced today that it is suspending funding of "gain-of-function" (GOF) studies on influenza and other viruses to allow time to assess the risks and benefits of such controversial research and develop a federal policy on it.

The term GOF is generally used to refer to experiments that involve enhancing the pathogenicity or transmissibility of a pathogenic microbe, with the aim of better understanding disease pathways and developing vaccines and drugs.

In addition to influenza, the funding pause applies to GOF studies of MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) said in a statement.

During the pause, the statement said, the government will not fund any new GOF experiments on these viruses, and it "encourages those currently conducting this type of work—whether federally funded or not—to voluntarily pause their research while risks and benefits are being reassessed." The administration's goal is to adopt a policy on the research sometime in 2015.

"The funding pause will not apply to the characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses unless there is a reasonable expectation that these tests would increase transmissibility or pathogenicity," the OSTP said.

Two federal panels, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies, will play lead roles in the deliberations on GOF research, the OSTP said.

The NSABB will serve as the official federal group for providing advice on oversight of GOF research. The panel will meet on Oct 22 to debate the issues and begin developing recommendations.

Early in the deliberations, the NRC will be asked to convene a scientific symposium on GOF research issues. Later it will hold a second symposium to discuss the NSABB's draft recommendations.

Critics of GOF studies have been advocating a comprehensive risk assessment of GOF research for more than 2 years. The issue came to the fore in late 2011, when two groups of researchers first reported experiments that produced H5N1 avian flu viruses with airborne transmissibility in ferrets.
Oct 17 White House statement


Pacific islands face increase in mosquito-borne diseases

Three mosquito-borne viruses—dengue, chikungunya, and Zika—have caused 28 new outbreaks in the Pacific region since the beginning of 2012 and appear to be getting more frequent and more diverse, pointing up a need for improved surveillance and response measures so island health systems are not overwhelmed and the diseases don't spread further, says an article in the Oct 16 issue of Eurosurveillance.

Dengue has caused outbreaks each semester over the past 3 years except for the second half of 2014, for which only 2 months of reports are available so far. Dengue virus type 1 was responsible for the two outbreaks in the first half of 2012 but has been joined or supplanted by types 2, 3, and 4 as the cause in all dengue outbreaks since then, the report says.

Chikungunya has caused outbreaks in each yearly semester over the past 3 years except for the second half of 2012, when only dengue (all four types) outbreaks occurred.

Zika joined dengue and chikungunya in the second half of 2013, causing one outbreak then and two in the first half of 2014.

The most outbreaks overall—nine—occurred in the first half of 2014.

The convergance of dengue, chikungunya, and Zika virus infections is in line with increases in emerging diseases across the globe, says the article, and is most likely being driven by some combination of socioeconomic, environmental, and ecological factors.

The Pacific region covers 22 island countries and territories and has a population of about 10.6 million people.
Oct 16 Eurosurveill article


Los Angeles sees third species of potentially disease-carrying Aedes mosquitoes

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are aggressive day-time-biters also known as "yellow fever mosquitoes," have been identified in Los Angeles County in California, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.

The mosquitoes, which have black and white stripes, can carry dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever viruses, although none of these diseases are being transmitted locally in the area to date.

Vector-control teams are reportedly attacking the mosquitoes aggressively. How they arrived in California is not known, but likely sources are imported tires and plants, says the story.

Two other Aedes species have been found in Los Angeles County over the past 3 years, Asian tiger mosquitoes and Australian backyard mosquitoes.
Oct 15 LA Times article


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