Biosecurity advisers urge tighter oversight of experiments with viruses

Members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurtiy issued draft recommendations urging the federal government to tighten its policies on experiments involving possibly dangerous viruses and other pathogens, The Washington Post reported Sept. 21. 

Current federal policies apply to pathogens that are "likely highly virulent," or very deadly. The advisers say policies should extend beyond extremely deadly pathogens to also cover those that, while not as deadly, still "pose a severe threat to public health or national security if the pathogen is capable of wide and uncontrollable spread in human populations." Research led by privately funded institutions is also not covered under existing policies. 

The full advisory board met Sept. 21 to discuss the nation's existing policies and the draft recommendations and gave the public a chance to weigh in. Final recommendations will take months, and top federal officials will make final decisions on federal policies, the Post reports. 

The COVID-19 pandemic intensified a long-standing debate over the benefits of pathogen research. Scientists who conduct such research say they are doing important work by learning more about novel pathogens that pose a risk to public health, while critics fear the research could inadvertently cause an outbreak or fall into the wrong hands and be used to create bioweapons. Speculation that a lab leak played a role in the origin of the pandemic reinvigorated the debate over research on risky pathogens, though there is no hard evidence that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a laboratory. Many scientists say there is overwhelming evidence that a live animal market in Wuhan, China, is the source, where a natural spillover from animals likely occurred. 

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