Covid origin debate looms over guidelines for deadly lab research

Federal government biosafety advisers are calling for more rigorous scrutiny of experiments involving potentially dangerous viruses and other pathogens, reflecting an ongoing debate within the scientific community about the benefits and risks of such laboratory research. This contentious issue has become even more acrimonious amid speculation that some sort of “lab leak” may have played a role in the origin of the coronavirus.

The draft recommendations of the members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, the met Wednesday to discuss policy, do not address the origin of the pandemic. There is also no direct connection to the corona virus.

But the first recommendation clearly bears the hallmark of the pandemic: the outside advisers are urging the government to broaden its definition of the types of experiments that require special screening and safeguards.

Current guidelines cover pathogens that are “likely to be highly virulent” — meaning extremely deadly. But the consultants say this doesn’t cover pathogens that don’t reach that lethality threshold but “pose a serious threat to public health or national security if the pathogen were able to spread widely and uncontrollably in the human population.” to spread”.

That is an apt description of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which is far less deadly than viruses like Ebola but is extraordinarily transmissible.

A science in the shadows: Controls for gain-of-function experiments with overloaded pathogens have been undercut despite concerns about lab leaks

During a brief period for public comment On Wednesday, Rutgers University professor Richard H. Ebright delivered a litany of what he called shortcomings in existing policies, including a lack of transparency, a failure to review many risky experiments and a lack of enforcement. Research conducted by privately funded institutions does not fall under the guidelines, he noted.

Epidemiologist Syra Madad, co-chair of a working group focused on guidelines for treating enhanced pathogens, said the group “believes more transparency is needed”.

board members Also expressed concern about the imposition of excessive restrictions on the necessary research. Madad said the slow process of reviewing proposals has already taken place discourages younger researchers.

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“If we overregulate in the United States, it will only result in unregulated or unregulated research being pushed offshore, and we need to address this issue,” said Rear Admiral Kenneth Bernard (Ret.), formerly of US Public Health Service, another board member.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first opportunity for the full Board to discuss the draft recommendations — as well as the first opportunity for the public to comment. Final recommendations from the board are not expected for months, and top federal officials will ultimately decide the policies.

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health mandated the Biosafety Panel to reconsider the framework for risky research involving “elevated potential pandemic pathogens” and separately “dual-use research of concern” that includes pathogens that could be weaponized.

This is less a crackdown on research and more a refinement of the existing biosafety framework, said Lyric Jorgenson, acting associate director of the NIH Office of Science Policy.

“We’re trying to find the best balance between preserving the benefits of research and minimizing the risk,” she said.

Pathogen research was a delicate debate even before the corona pandemic. Scientists who study pathogens claim that they are doing life-saving work by studying, and in some cases manipulating, pathogens that could pose a threat if they evolved into more transmissible or deadly forms. However, critics worry that some of this research could inadvertently trigger an outbreak or be exploited by malicious actors trying to create bioweapons.

The scientific community wrestled with biosafety and biosecurity issues more than a decade ago after some scientists deemed research on the influenza virus overly risky. Much of the criticism has focused on fears that knowledge gained from such research could find its way into the hands of terrorists intent on creating bioweapons. The federal government then developed a framework to subject certain types of experiments to special oversight.

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However, critics of gain-of-function experiments continue to characterize supervision as inadequate and point to a lack of transparency in the review process. That claim gained intensity amid speculation about leaks in the laboratory for the origin of the pandemic.

There is no clear evidence that SARS-CoV-2 originated from any laboratory. Many prominent virologists who study the virus and have published peer-reviewed articles on the origin of the pandemic say the evidence mostly points to natural spread from animals being sold at a market.

Much of the debate revolves around geography. A major research facility studying coronaviruses, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, happens to be located in the city where the outbreak began.

Chinese scientists have said they never had the virus in their labs. Proponents of the lab leak theory note that the Chinese government has generally been uncooperative and heavily armed with international investigations. Chinese officials have also put forward far-fetched theories about the origin of the pandemic, saying the virus likely originated outside of China, possibly from a US military lab.

In the past, most pandemics have originated from pathogens that jumped from an animal host to humans. Such zoonotic spillovers have spawned HIV, Ebola, Zika, influenza, and hundreds of other diseases. That The 2002 outbreak of SARS began in China through natural spread from animals sold in markets there. The novel coronavirus circulating today is genetically so similar to the original SARS virus that scientists decided to give it a derived name.

In the early days of the pandemic, some prominent scientists studying the genetic characteristics of the new virus thought it might have been created through laboratory manipulation. But they soon concluded that these traits could easily have arisen through natural selection. An influential paper published in the journal Nature Medicine in early 2020 stated that the virus had not been manipulated. While the scientific community is not monolithic on the question of the origin of the pandemic, many virologists believe it started like so many have in the past – through a natural spread.

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Two papers published this summer in the . Science magazine presented evidence that the epicenter of the pandemic was a market in Wuhan that sold live animals that could be infected and transmitted by coronavirus. The papers’ authors highlighted the concentration of early cases in and around the market, including among vendors who worked there. Many environmental samples of the virus were found on surfaces in the area where animals were sold and slaughtered, the scientists wrote.

However, the authors of these papers acknowledge that there are still many unknowns, e.g. B. which animals carried the virus and where the animals came from.

Some researchers have fired back at lab leak advocates, saying baseless accusations against scientists endanger public health.

“Sowing distrust of evidence-based inquiry destroys opportunities for international collaborations that are essential to this work,” researchers Angela Rasmussen and Michael Worobey recently wrote in Foreign Policy. “Biosecurity cooperation, once a relatively bright spot in US-China relations, has been effectively destroyed.”

David Relman, a Stanford professor of medicine and a former member of the biosafety committee, said in an email Wednesday that these are the most critical issues the management of risks in the life sciences and the transparency of the oversight processare independent of the debate about the origin of the pandemic. “We haven’t figured any of that out yet, and the clock is ticking,” he said.

Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University, said he would support tightening biosecurity requirements for certain experiments. But he said he thinks the research community has been cautious, noting that people who work with pathogens have a vested interest in biosecurity. For them, he said, it was a matter of life and death.

“We’re not against the rules. We need to know what rules apply. But don’t turn us off.” said Gary. “This work must be done.”

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