Research with exotic viruses risks a deadly outbreak, scientists warn

Research with exotic viruses risks a deadly outbreak, scientists warn

The Washington Post reports:

Some of the workers received booster shots to prevent infection by common rabies, and none of them reported illness, according to their supervisor. But the incidents raised disturbing questions about the research: What if they encountered an unknown virus that killed humans? What if it spread to their colleagues? What if it infected their families and neighbors?

As if to underscore the risks, in 2018 another lab on the same Bangkok campus — a workspace built specifically to handle dangerous pathogens — was shut down for months because of mechanical failures, including a breakdown in a ventilation system that guards against leaks of airborne microbes. Then, in a catastrophe that began in Wuhan, a Chinese city 1,500 miles away, the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, becoming a terrifying case study in how a single virus of uncertain origin can spread exponentially.

In spring 2021, the Thai team’s leader pulled the plug, deciding that the millions of dollars of U.S. research money for virus hunting did not justify the risk.

“To go on with this mission is very dangerous,” Thiravat Hemachudha, a university neurologist who supervised the expeditions, told The Washington Post. “Everyone should realize that this is hard to control, and the consequences are so big, globally.”

Three years after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a similar reckoning is underway among a growing number of scientists, biosecurity experts and policymakers. The global struggle with covid-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, has challenged conventional thinking about biosafety and risks, casting a critical light on widely accepted practices such as prospecting for unknown viruses.

A Post examination found that a two-decade, global expansion of risky research has outpaced measures to ensure the safety of the work and that the exact number of biocontainment labs handling dangerous pathogens worldwide, while unknown, is believed by experts to be in the thousands.

In scores of interviews, scientific experts and officials — including in the Biden administration — acknowledged flaws in monitoring the riskiest kinds of pathogen research. While the pandemic showcased the need for science to respond quickly to global crises, it also exposed major gaps in how high-stakes research is regulated, according to the interviews and a review of thousands of pages of biosafety documents. The source of the coronavirus pandemic remains uncertain. While many scientists and experts suspect it may have been caused by a natural spillover from animals to humans, the FBI, including Director Christopher A. Wray, and a recent Energy Department assessment concluded with varying degrees of confidence that its likely source was an accidental release from a lab in Wuhan.

Within the United States, government regulation has also failed to keep step with new technologies that allow scientists to alter viruses and even synthesize new ones. The Biden administration is expected this year to impose tighter restrictions on research with the kinds of pathogens that could trigger an outbreak or a pandemic, according to officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Governments and private researchers continue building high-containment laboratories to work with the most menacing pathogens, despite a lack of safety standards or regulatory authorities in some countries, science and policy experts said. Meanwhile, U.S. agencies continue to funnel millions of dollars annually into overseas research, such as virus hunting, that some scientists say exposes local populations to risks while offering few tangible benefits. [Continue reading…]

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