July 31, 2014

Scientists for Science Call for Continued Research on Potentially Dangerous Pathogens

In a climate where concerns over experiments that create new potentially dangerous pathogens are now amplified due to recent biosafety lapses in high-profile labs, a new group of scientists, Scientists for Science (SFS), emerged this week to assert that research on dangerous pathogens can be (and generally is) conducted safely, that it is adequately regulated, and that such work is critical for public health (the current Ebola virus public health crisis contributes to public attention on these issues). This statement and organization contrasts with and follows the recent statement from the recently formed  Cambridge Working Group (CWG) (see here) that called for curtailing certain high-risk pathogen experiments until a thorough cost-benefit analysis is conducted by the scientific community, along the lines of work done by the 1975 Asilomar conference on the risks of recombinant DNA research. The SFS rejects the Asilomar comparison and does not call for limiting such experiments now, but it does call for a more formal review of risks and benefits conducted by an outside expert body, such as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).  From the SFS statement

Scientists for Science are confident that biomedical research on potentially dangerous pathogens can be performed safely and is essential for a comprehensive understanding of microbial disease pathogenesis, prevention and treatment. The results of such research are often unanticipated and accrue over time; therefore, risk-benefit analyses are difficult to assess accurately. 

If we expect to continue to improve our understanding of how microorganisms cause disease we cannot avoid working with potentially dangerous pathogens. In recognition of this need, significant resources have been invested globally to build and operate BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities, and to mitigate risk in a variety of ways, involving regulatory requirements, facility engineering and training. Ensuring that these facilities operate safely and are staffed effectively so that risk is minimized is our most important line of defense, as opposed to limiting the types of experiments that are done. 

In contrast to recombinant DNA research at the time of Asilomar in 1975, studies on dangerous pathogens are already subject to extensive regulations. In addition to regulations associated with Select Agent research, experimental plans on other pathogens are peer reviewed by scientists and funding agencies, and the associated risk assessments are considered by biosafety experts and safety committees. Risk mitigation plans are proposed and then considered and either approved or improved by safety committees. 

If there is going to be further discussion about these issues, we must have input from outside experts with the background and skills to conduct actual risk assessments based on specific experiments and existing laboratories. Such conversations are best facilitated under the auspices of a neutral party, such as the International Union of Microbiological Societies or the American Society for Microbiology, or national academies, such as the National Academy of Sciences, USA. We suggest they should organize a meeting to discuss these issues. 

The CWG and SFS clearly do not agree on the need to halt certain experiments while a more thorough review of cost-benefit parameters for high-risk pathogen research is conducted. However, a consensus is clearly emerging on both sides that public confidence in the need for such experiments as well as continued funding support does require more thorough, expert assessment from outside experts. Neither statement references the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), the federal advisory committee that most recently was called on during to assess the publication of gain-of function influenza H5N1 research in 2011. That panel has been recently reshuffled by NIH. A high-level study by the NAS on these issues, therefore, appears welcome to all sides of the current debate. The NAS (through its National Research Council) did undertake a general review of bioterrorism research post-9/11, entitled Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual Use Dilemma (2004) (the Fink Report), which called for the establishment of the NSABB, so there is a certain circularity here.

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