Middle East and North African countries need better rules for gain of function pathogen research

By Nisreen AL-Hmoud | July 5, 2024

A biosafety lab.A scientist working in a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a collection of expert commentaries. You can read the rest of the series here

Policy makers in the Middle East and North Africa should work to ensure lab biosafety and biosecurity by raising awareness of risks and developing ethical standards and codes of conduct, as well as improving laws and regulations. Globally, this work is unfinished. In the MENA region, policies and training related to pathogen research, including gain-of function work, remains uneven.

While the systems in some countries in the region for dealing with biological risks are rather developed, other countries haven’t yet developed a national strategy. In Jordan or Morocco, for example, practicing scientists and students are using ethics education to incorporate safety and security programs and concepts into their daily work. Likewise, the federal clinical laboratory network in the United Arab Emirates incorporates the “3Cs of Biosecurity,” a formulation that describes codes of ethics, codes of conduct, and codes of practice that are integrated into the way the laboratories operate.

Middle East and North African countries can learn from biosecurity policies elsewhere, for example, the US Select Agent regulations that guide the use, storage, and transport of many pathogenic microbes, as they also need to strengthen human and laboratory capacity for handling, importing, and exporting biological agents. Iraq is the only country in the region with a similar list. Just as countries in the Middle East and North Africa should strive to improve standards and oversight of pathogen handling, they should also implement oversight of gain of function research by conducting thorough reviews of research proposals to pre-empt research into areas that could result in dangerous and unintended consequences. No country in the region has such a gain-of-function pathogen research strategy.

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

In the United States, a revised gain of function policy asks researchers, not just regulators, to engage in the process of identifying biorisks. Likewise, in the Middle East and North Africa, policymakers will need to involve practitioners in the development of better regulations and facilities and work to spread best practices throughout research institutions.

The implementation of better policies and oversight that can facilitate Middle East and North African pathogen research will aid a field expected to yield significant benefits both regionally and globally. These aims of these policies should include decreased risks associated with pandemics and other epidemics from any source, by facilitating early detection and response to outbreaks; improved responses to biological crises through improved risk protocols, education, and preparedness; decreased unintended consequences of research; improved governmental policy-making and policy decisions; stronger biosafety and biosecurity standards and practices; and decreased risk of intentional biological crises by improving security systems and procedures at biological facilities.

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Keywords: Pathogens Commentary
Topics: Biosecurity

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Mary Jane Williams
Mary Jane Williams
14 days ago

Why does the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists think genetic engineering is now totally acceptable? I know; Harvard University, MIT, and the whole scientific establishment thinks so, too.


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