Controversy over the origin of the coronavirus looms over guidelines for risky lab research

Federal government biosecurity advisers demand stricter monitoring Experiments with 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 is becoming more and more malevolent amid speculation that some kind of “lab leak” may have played a role in the origin of the coronavirus.

The Draft Recommendations Among the members of the National Scientific Advisory Council on Biosecurity, which will meet Wednesday to discuss policies, Do not address the origin of the epidemic. There is no direct reference to the Corona virus.

But the first recommendation clearly bears the signature of an epidemic: Outside advisors are urging the government to broaden its definition of the types of trials that require special reviews and safety measures.

Current policies cover “potentially highly virulent” pathogens – that is, extremely dangerous. But advisers say this fails to cover pathogens that do not meet this death threshold, but “pose a serious threat to public health or national security if the pathogen is able to spread widely and uncontrollably in humans.”

That’s a fair description of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which is much less deadly than viruses like Ebola but extraordinarily transmissible.

Science in the shadows: Controls over ‘gain-of-function’ experiments with supercharged pathogens have been weakened despite concerns about lab leaks

National Institutes of Health earlier this year BSC accused With a review of the risky research framework that includes “pandemic potential pathogens” and, separately, “dual-use research of concern”, which includes pathogens that could be weaponized.

Wednesday meeting It will be the first opportunity for the full board to discuss the draft recommendations – as well as the first opportunity for the public to express its opinion. The final recommendations from the board of directors are not expected for months, and top federal officials will eventually decide on policies.

This is not a crackdown on research so much as a revision of the existing biosecurity framework, said Lyric Jorgensen, acting associate director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Science Policy.

“We try to get the best balance to preserve the benefits of the research and reduce the risks,” she said.

The pathogen’s research was a thorny debate even before the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists who study pathogens assert that they are doing life-saving work by studying and, in some cases, treating pathogens that could pose a threat if they evolve into more transmissible or deadly forms. But critics fear that some of this research could inadvertently cause an outbreak, or be exploited by malicious actors seeking biological weapons.

The scientific community has grappled with issues of biosafety and biosecurity for more than a decade in the wake of what some scientists believed to be risky search on the influenza virus. Much criticism has focused on concerns that knowledge gained through such research could fall into the hands of Terrorists who seek to create biological weapons. The federal government later developed a framework for subjecting certain types of experiments to special oversight.

But critics of the “gain-the-job” experiments continue to describe oversight as inadequate and point to a lack of transparency in the review process. This controversy has heated up amid lab leaks’ speculation of the pandemic’s origin.

there There is no conclusive evidence That SARS-CoV-2 came out of any laboratory. Many prominent virologists who studied the virus and published Peer-reviewed papers on the origin of the epidemic The evidence says it largely refers to the natural fallout from the animals sold in the market.

The debate depends largely on geography. The main research facility studying coronaviruses, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is located in the city where the outbreak began.

Chinese scientists say they have never contracted the virus in their laboratories. Promoters of the laboratory leak theory noted that the Chinese government was generally uncooperative, and opened up the weaponization of international investigations. Chinese officials have also put forth far-fetched theories about the origin of the epidemic, saying the virus may have come from outside China, possibly from a US military laboratory.

Historically, most epidemics have come from pathogens jumping to humans from an animal host. Such as Zoonotic fallout It has produced HIV, Ebola, Zika, influenza, and hundreds of other diseases. The The SARS outbreak began in 2002 in China through the natural spread of animals sold in markets there. The new coronavirus circulating today is so genetically similar to the original SARS virus that scientists have decided to give it a derivative name.

In the early days of the epidemic, some prominent scientists who examined the genetic features of the new virus thought it might have been produced through laboratory manipulation. But they soon concluded that these features could easily have resulted from natural selection. that touching paper Published in Nature Medicine in early 2020 declared that the virus had not been engineered. While the scientific community is not united on the issue of the origin of the epidemic, many virologists believe This started Much like in the past – through natural repercussions.

Two papers published this summer in Science provided evidence that the epicenter of the epidemic was a market in Wuhan selling live animals capable of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus. The authors of the research papers highlighted the focus of early cases in and around the market, including among the vendors who worked there. The scientists wrote that several environmental samples of the virus were found on rooftops in the area where the animals were sold and slaughtered.

But the authors of those papers acknowledge that there are still many unknowns, such as which animals carried the virus and where the animals came from.

Some researchers have responded to the lab leak’s promoters, saying the baseless accusations against the scientists endanger public health.

Scholars Angela Rasmussen and Michael Worubi recently wrote in Foreign Policy. “Biosecurity cooperation, once a relatively bright spot in US-China relations, has been effectively destroyed.”

There are many parties interested in discussing biosecurity. Epidemiologist Sera Madad, co-chair of the Biosecurity Working Group that prepared the draft recommendations, noted that pathogen research is highly competitive because it leads to innovative vaccines and treatments.

“We don’t want to impede any good innovation,” she said, stipulating that she was speaking in her personal capacity and not as co-chair of the working group.

Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University, said he would support increased biosafety requirements for certain experiments. But he said he believed the research community was careful and noted that people who work with pathogens have a personal interest in biosafety. For them, he said, it’s a matter of life or death.

We do not oppose regulations. We need to know the rules. But don’t shut us down. Gary said. “This work must be done.”