Scientists weigh in on the challenges and opportunities of high-risk pathogen research around the world

By Matt Field | May 28, 2024

Nurse cares for patient.A nurse cares for a patient on a US Navy hospital ship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: US Navy.

The COVID pandemic illustrated the grave, global threat that a novel pathogen can pose. It also brought to the fore an uncomfortable idea that had long circulated in some corners of the life sciences: that modern experimental techniques, including research that creates more transmissible or virulent pathogens to understand disease better, could pose their own threat to human health. There is no firm evidence that this sort of work—often labeled as “gain of function”—led to the COVID pandemic, which emerged near an epicenter of bat coronavirus research, but the pandemic nonetheless has put techniques like those used at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology and other biosafety labs under the spotlight.

The US Congress has been holding hearings with scientists and science funders involved in these pursuits. Countries have been reforming or implementing changes to their biosecurity policies. And entities, including the Bulletin, have convened scientists and other researchers to examine the ethical and technical aspects of how high-consequence pathogen research is conducted and to explore how oversight of such research might be reformed.

For this commentary package, the Bulletin has asked researchers involved in a Bulletin-organized task force known as the Pathogens Project to weigh in on these issues and highlight gaps in biosecurity, biosafety, and other areas related to pathogen research that might otherwise be overlooked. Their responses are below. Additional responses will be published as they are ready.

Rangers in protective suits examine seabirds.

The risks of underdeveloped biorisk management policies in pandemic hotspots

Pandemic hotspots are likely to be areas with below average levels of development, inadequate scientific infrastructure for disease surveillance, and poor governance over activities such as pathogen research that entail “biorisks.”

TB studies illustrate the importance of properly assessing the risks of pathogen research

While research with favorable risk-benefit profiles must be facilitated, high-risk research of either limited benefits or benefits for only a limited few must be seen through a different regulatory lens.
Ebola vaccine trial.

To protect global health security, Africa needs more pathogen research labs

Responsible conduct of enhanced potential pandemic pathogen research in Africa demands concerted efforts to harmonize regulations at both regional and national levels.

Scientists are the best judge of research risks, but they need support

Scientists who research pandemic pathogens are in the best position to assess its risks, prepare mitigation measures, and detect problems. Engaging them so they incorporate relevant norms, tools, and mechanisms to proactively assess and mitigate the potential risks of their work can be a challenging, but necessary endeavor.

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Topics: Biosecurity

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