Debate over Covid origin looms over guidelines for deadly lab research

By on September 21, 2022 0

Federal government biosafety advisers are calling for greater scrutiny of 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 has become even more rancorous amid speculation that some sort of ‘lab leak’ may have played a role in the origin of the coronavirus.

The draft recommendations members of the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosafety, which met on Wednesday to discuss policies, not to address the origin of the pandemic. There is also no direct reference to the coronavirus.

But the first recommendation clearly bears the signature of the pandemic: external advisers are urging the government to broaden its definition of the types of experiments that require special reviews and safety measures.

Current policies cover pathogens that are “probably very virulent”, i.e. extremely lethal. But advisers say this does not cover pathogens that do not meet this threshold of mortality, but “pose a serious threat to public health or national security if the pathogen were able to spread on a large scale and uncontrollably in human populations”.

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

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For a brief public comment period On Wednesday, Rutgers University professor Richard H. Ebright provided a litany of what he said were flaws in existing policies, including a lack of transparency, failure to review many risky experiments, and a lack of enforcement. Research conducted by privately funded institutions is not covered by the policies, he noted.

Epidemiologist Syra Madad, co-chair of a policy-focused working group covering enhanced pathogens, said the group “believes that increased transparency is needed”.

Board members too expressed concern about the imposition of undue constraints on the necessary research. Madad said the slow process of reviewing proposals has already discouraged young researchers.

“If we over-regulate in the United States, it will only push unregulated or unregulated research overseas, and we have to deal with that problem,” said retired Rear Admiral Kenneth Bernard, 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 chime in. The council’s final recommendations aren’t expected for months, and senior federal officials will ultimately decide on policies.

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health tasked the biosafety board with reviewing the framework for at-risk research involving “enhanced potential pandemic pathogens” and, separately, “dual-use research of concern,” which involves pathogens that could be weaponized.

This isn’t so much a crackdown on research as a refinement of the existing biosafety framework, said Lyric Jorgenson, acting director of the NIH Office of Science Policy.

“We try to find the best balance between preserving the benefits of research and minimizing the risks,” she said.

Pathogen research was a hot debate even before the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists who study pathogens say they do vital work studying and, in some cases, manipulating pathogens that could pose a threat if they evolve into more transmissible or deadly forms. But critics worry that some of this research could inadvertently trigger an epidemic or be exploited by malicious actors seeking to manufacture biological weapons.

The scientific community struggled more than a decade ago with biosafety and biosecurity issues following what some scientists considered too risky research on the influenza virus. Much of the criticism centered on fears that the knowledge gained from this research could fall into the hands of terrorists seeking to build biological weapons. The federal government subsequently developed a framework for subjecting certain types of experiments to special oversight.

But critics of “gain of function” experiments continued to call the oversight insufficient and point to a lack of transparency in the review process. This claim has intensified amid speculation that a lab leak may have played a role in the origin of the pandemic.

There is no hard evidence that SARS-CoV-2 came out of a lab. Many prominent virologists who study the virus and have published peer-reviewed papers on the origin of the pandemic say the evidence overwhelmingly points to a natural spillover of animals being sold in a market.

Much of the debate is based on geography. A major research center that studies coronaviruses, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, happens to be located in the city where the outbreak began.

Chinese scientists said they had never had the virus in their labs. Proponents of the lab leak theory note that the Chinese government has generally been uncooperative and has conducted heavy-handed international investigations. Chinese officials have also floated outlandish theories about the origin of the pandemic, saying the virus likely originated outside China, possibly from a US military lab.

Historically, most pandemics are due to pathogens jumping into humans from an animal host. These zoonotic spillovers have produced HIV, Ebola, Zika, influenza and hundreds of other diseases. The The 2002 SARS epidemic began in China with a natural overflow of animals sold in markets there. The novel coronavirus circulating today is so genetically similar to the original SARS virus that scientists have decided to give it a derivative name.

At the start of the pandemic, some prominent scientists who examined the genetic characteristics of the new virus believed that it could have been produced by manipulations in the laboratory. But they quickly concluded that these traits could easily result from natural selection. A influential paper published in the journal Nature Medicine in early 2020 said the virus was not engineered. Although the scientific community is not monolithic on the question of the origin of the pandemic, many virologists believe that this one began like so many others in the past – with a natural spillover.

Two papers published this summer in the journal Science presented evidence that the epicenter of the pandemic was a market in Wuhan that sold live animals capable of infecting and transmitting coronaviruses. The authors of the articles pointed to the concentration of early cases in and around the market, including among vendors who worked there. Numerous environmental samples of the virus were found on surfaces in the area where animals were sold and slaughtered, the scientists wrote.

But the authors of these articles acknowledge that there are still many unknowns, such as which animals carry the virus and where they come from.

Some researchers have hit back at proponents of the lab leak theory, saying baseless accusations against scientists endanger public health.

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

David Relman, professor of medicine at Stanford University and former biosafety board member, said in an email Wednesday that the most critical issues risk management in the life sciences and transparency of the oversight processare independent of the debate on the origin of the pandemic. “We haven’t figured it all out yet, and time is running out,” he said..

Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University, said he would support increased biosafety requirements for certain experiments. But he said he thought the research community had been cautious and stressed that people working with pathogens had a personal interest in biosecurity. For them, he says, it’s a matter of life and death.

“We are not opposed to regulation. We need to know what the rules are. But don’t shut us out.” said Gary. “This work must be done.”