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British Medical JournalThe US Quietly Terminates a Controversial $125M Wildlife Virus Hunting Program Amid Safety Fears

USAID Terminates DEEP VZN Program Amid Safety Concerns and Bipartisan Criticism

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has decided to discontinue its DEEP VZN program, aimed at identifying potential pandemic-causing viruses among wildlife. The decision comes after bipartisan criticism and concerns over the safety and efficacy of such research, especially in the wake of the unproven origins of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

HCN Medical Memo
The termination of the DEEP VZN program underscores the complexities and risks involved in zoonotic disease research. Although the intent to preemptively identify potential pandemic-causing viruses is noble, the practical and ethical considerations cannot be ignored. The decision to halt the program may signal a shift in global health priorities, emphasizing the need for robust disease surveillance systems and biosecurity measures over speculative virus hunting.

Key Points:
  • DEEP VZN was a $125 million program launched in October 2021, focusing on identifying viruses from three viral families: coronaviruses, filoviruses, and paramyxoviruses.
  • The program aimed to collect around 480,000 samples from wildlife and identify as many as 12,000 novel viruses over five years.
  • Officials from both the Democratic and Republican parties raised concerns about the program’s safety, questioning its prudence.
  • White House officials specializing in biosecurity and biosafety had privately advised USAID to shut down DEEP VZN as early as December 2021.

“OK, I may get myself in trouble. I’m just not an optimist on the question, because nature is vast. There are viruses that can jump species—and we do not know how to take a virus from the animal kingdom and recognise when it is ready to jump species.”
– Eric S. Lander, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Additional Points:
  • USAID has shifted its focus towards improving global laboratory capacity, disease surveillance, and biosecurity.
  • The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that such work should only be approved if “there are no feasible alternative methods of obtaining the relevant benefits from proposed research that pose less risk.”
  • The program had been under scrutiny from Senate committees, with Republican senators Lindsey Graham and James Risch spearheading the questions.

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