Internationally, some significant policy news in the past month included the appointment of the first female director of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), a climate deal made by European Union (EU) leaders, the United States (US) government’s temporary ban on gain-of-function research, and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) plans to produce millions of Ebola vaccines by the end of 2015.
Gianotti named next director of CERN
Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti has been named the next director of CERN. She is perhaps best known for her involvement in the groundbreaking work that first revealed the existence of the Higgs boson. When she formally takes office in 2016, Gianotti will be the 16th director of CERN and the first female leader of the renowned laboratory. CERN was founded by 12 countries in 1954, and was initially called the European Council for Nuclear Research. Currently, it consists of 21 members, numerous affiliated organizations, and nation states with observer status.
EU agrees to cut greenhouse emissions by 2030
The European Council recently converged and drafted a new framework for reducing greenhouse gases by 2030. Under this new framework, EU member states must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% (relative to 1990 levels) and increase the proportion of renewable energy to total energy production from the current 14% to 27% by 2030. This ambitious move is hampered, however, by some member nations highly reliant on coal that could veto future decisions and concessions made to large polluters to prevent carbon leakage.
US government declares moratorium on gain-of-function research
On October 17, the US government announced a temporary ban on gain-of-function research. The ban suspends new grants for gain-of-function research on the flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Researchers who are already being funded have also been asked to halt their work until the moratorium is lifted. Gain-of-function experiments boost the properties of certain pathogens to make them more transmissible or deadly. Results from such experiments often reveal the mechanism through which infectious diseases are spread, and how they may evolve. The moratorium was announced not long after a number of laboratory accidents involving dangerous pathogens had occurred at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, last July. The ban is set to last until the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and the National Research Council (NRC) completes a risk-benefit analysis on gains-of-function research. This process is expected to take around a year. Many researchers voiced complaints at a NSABB public meeting on October 22, stating that the ban will cause important research, surveillance, and drug development to be lost and that it would negatively affect their academic careers. However, there are some exemptions being made to the ban – work considered “urgent for public health and national security” by the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be allowed to continue.
WHO announces plans for Ebola vaccines
On October 24, at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the WHO announced plans to produce millions of two experimental Ebola vaccines by the end of 2015. According to a WHO update on November 7, there have been a total of 13,268 Ebola cases and 4,960 deaths since last December, though many more cases could have gone unreported. Ebola continues to be a serious issue, and the development of vaccines is a vital step to stopping the epidemic. According to Marie-Paul Kieny, who is the WHO assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, two Ebola vaccine candidates are currently undergoing phase I trials and testing of up to five other vaccines could start by 2015. The first phase II and III trials are also set to take place in Liberia in December. Years of trials usually precede mass vaccinations, in order to guarantee a certain level of safety and efficacy. However, the timeline for Ebola vaccines have been significantly accelerated and is thus unprecedented, leading to many ethical questions. Some practical issues must also be resolved, such as who will pay the costs for mass vaccination and how to store the vaccines locally at countries most in need, as the vaccines must be kept at 80 degrees Celsius to maintain efficacy.