Government officials are thinking of increasing oversight of studies of risky viruses: Vaccines

This image shows purified particles of the mpox virus, formerly called monkeypox. Viruses like these can be genetically altered in the laboratory in ways that could make them more dangerous.


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This image shows purified particles of the mpox virus, formerly called monkeypox. Viruses like these can be genetically altered in the laboratory in ways that could make them more dangerous.


More than 150 virologists have signed up for a commentary That says that all the evidence to date indicates that the coronavirus pandemic started naturally and was not the result of some kind of laboratory accident or malicious attack.

They worry that continued speculation about a lab in China is fueling calls for more regulation of pathogen experiments, stifling the basic research needed to prepare for future pandemics.

The virologists issued their statement just before a key meeting on Friday in the hands of outside advisers to the federal government. That group is set to conclude a recent review of the existing monitoring system for experiments that are controversial because they could create potential new threats.

The preliminary recommendations of the advisers call for expanding a special decision-making process that currently weighs the risks and benefits of experiments that could make “potential pandemic pathogens” more dangerous.

“The government really has a vested interest on behalf of all of us, in public, in knowing when researchers want to make a virus more lethal or more transmissible, and understanding how that would be done and why that would be done, and if the benefits are worth it,” says tom inglesbydirector of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

He thinks that if the government were to adopt the draft recommendations, “it would be a big step forward.”

The origins of the pandemic

This all comes as the laboratory in China, known as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is back in the headlines. An internal government watchdog released a report this week criticizing the National Institutes of Health, saying it failed to adequately oversee grants awarded to a nonprofit organization that had collaborated with scientists at the Wuhan lab.

felicia goodrum, a virologist at the University of Arizona, says that open-minded experts have investigated the origins of the pandemic. The available evidence, he says, supports the idea that the virus arose from nature like other viruses such as HIV and Ebola, jumping from animals to people who had contact with them.

“The evidence we have to date suggests that SARS-CoV-2 entered the human population by this route,” says Goodrum. “There is no evidence to the contrary or to support a lab leak, nothing credible.”

Basic virus research, he says, is what led to the rapid development of vaccines and drugs to fight the pandemic.

And yet virologists have watched in dismay as misinformation and conspiracy theories have shifted the blame onto science.

“There is this total disconnect between reality and what happened,” he says miguel imperialevirologist at the University of Michigan.

He says that while debates have raged for years about the wisdom of doing experiments that could make bad viruses even worse, this moment feels different.

“The pandemic,” he says, “has really increased the urgency with which we need to address these issues, just because of all the controversy that’s been out there regarding, you know, was it a lab leak or not?”

A study on bird flu raises the alarm

Unlike, say, nuclear physics research, biology has traditionally had a culture of openness. However, after the anthrax attacks in 2001, biologists began to grapple with the possibility that their published works could serve as recipes for criminals who wanted to make biological weapons.

And in 2011, there were protests after government-funded researchers tampered with a bird flu virus that can be deadly to people. His lab work made this virus more contagious in lab animals that are surrogates for people.

critics saying they had created a super flu. Proponents said viruses sometimes have to be tinkered with in the lab to see what they might be capable of; in nature, after all, mutations happen all the time and that’s how pandemic strains arise.

That episode marked the beginning of a long and heated debate, as well as research moratoriums and, ultimately, the development of new regulations. In 2017, a review system was put in place to weigh the risks and benefits of studies that could further worsen a potential pandemic pathogen. so far alone Three The proposed lines of research, involving influenza viruses, have been deemed risky enough to warrant that type of additional scrutiny.

“We’re really talking about a small number of research proposals,” he says. Lyric JorgensonActing Associate Director for Science Policy and Acting Director of the NIH Office of Science Policy.

She says that just before the pandemic began, officials asked advisers to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosafety to consider whether the government needed to be more transparent to the public about how he was making decisions about this type of research. Before that work was done, the pandemic hit and everything was put on hold. Last year, officials asked the group to expand its work and evaluate the regulations more comprehensively.

If the government ultimately adopts the preliminary changes developed by this advisory group, an additional layer of oversight would be applied to any “reasonably anticipated” study to improve the transmission or virulence of any pathogen in a way that could make it a health threat. public. . That means more experiments with more viruses would be looked at more closely.

“What this new recommendation says is that even if you start with a virus that had no potential to cause an epidemic or a pandemic, if you are doing research that will change that virus in a way that could now cause uncontrollable disease, or a widespread disease, which has to be reviewed by this new framework,” says Inglesby.

In addition, the advisory group has noted that “greater transparency in the review process is needed to build public confidence in the review and oversight processes.”

What is “reasonably anticipated”

The American Society for Microbiology has answered positively to the draft recommendations, saying that “we urge prompt implementation of the recommended changes by the federal agencies involved in this work.”

But some virologists believe that the devil will be in the details if these recommendations become policy.

“They keep using this phrase ‘reasonably anticipated,'” Imperiale says. “How will that be interpreted? Is there going to be clear guidance on what that means?”

Researchers often don’t know what will happen when they start an experiment, Goodrum says, especially when the science is cutting edge.

“That’s where the great scientific breakthroughs come from. So to tie our hands behind our backs, to say we can only do science that we can anticipate, then we’re really restricting innovative science,” he says.

Ron FouchierThe virologist at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, whose lab conducted the bird flu experiments more than a decade ago, said in an email that he expected the experience of going through a pandemic to simulate more research, not ” unnecessarily delay or delay restrict it”.

He said it appeared that many infectious disease researchers in the United States “will face substantial delays in their crucial research efforts, if they can continue that research at all.”

The United States is unusual in that it has a lot of public discussion about these issues and a system for trying to manage risk, Inglesby says.

He thinks supervision can be strengthened without interfering with science.

“I am avidly and absolutely supportive of science and research, and particularly supportive of infectious disease research,” says Inglesby.

But he says there’s a very small part of that research “where there’s a very high risk potential if things go wrong, either by accident or on purpose. So we have to strike the right balance, between the risks that could arise and the potential benefits.

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