Discord Among Scientists Still Fuels Hazardous Research Debate

Troy Brown, RN

March 14, 2016

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine met for the second of 2 days in a public symposium held to solicit input about potential domestic and international policies for gain-of-function (GOF) research in anticipation of formal recommendations from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to the United States government.

For several years, scientists and policy makers around the world have worked to find a way to reconcile the potential benefits of such research into potentially pandemic strains of viruses against the potential harms.

Disagreement Within the Scientific Communities

The issues related to GOF are far-reaching and complex, which is why scientists and policy makers are having difficulty deciding on the best approach to regulating GOF research. Some scientists disagree vehemently about whether or not GOF research of concern is necessary, whether or not it is helpful, and even whether or not it should be done at all. If this type of research is done, the level of biosafety measures required in laboratories that work with the most dangerous of pathogens is another issue about which agreement is elusive. Some scientists believe this type of research is a slippery, dangerous slope, while scientists on the other side of the argument chafe at restrictions on scientific freedom.

"While the life sciences are becoming an ever more important part of our lives for health and nutrition, fuels, and industrial materials, the Middle East and North Africa region lags behind other parts of the world in addressing issues in life sciences research to ensure that natural diseases are…contained as soon as possible, that harmful unintended consequences of research are minimized, that labs operate safely, both for the workforces and for communities in which they are situated, and that plans and infrastructure are in place to respond effectively to biological emergencies," Nisreen AL-Hmoud, PhD, Royal Scientific Society of Jordan, explained.

"I cannot be a more emphatic advocate for responsible science with proper and sufficiently robust oversight, but not so that it would squeeze the lifeblood out of bona fide scientific inquiry," Gabriel Leung, MD, University of Hong Kong, said.

Entire World Needs to Be Involved

There are many countries whose voices aren't being heard, and the international community lacks key perspectives, several panelists noted.

"Because of the high degree of externality which is an inherent nature of infectious agents, a globally harmonized order on GOF research is a prerequisite to achieving global human security," Dr Leung said. "Whereas largely tacit responses remain from other countries whose labs have been involved in GOF research thus far, some have even called it 'a deafening silence' from the rest of the world."

Having stringent regulation of — or even banning — GOF research of concern in some countries, won't stop an incident from happening somewhere that "these regulations don't, and cannot, touch," Dr Leung said.

Who Decides?

Input from other countries is important, but is that enough, asked Michael Selgelid, PhD, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. "There's a real question about what is the legitimate authority for making decisions and policy pertaining to GOF research. Could it be the US, so long as it's getting input from other countries?" Is that enough, or should at least some decisions be made by an international body to avoid the perception that one country is making the decisions for all countries, he asked.

Rather than going directly to the policy makers, the best place to start is probably discussion within the scientific communities one country at a time until there is some general understanding and agreement, a number of panel members and attendees suggested. That might help to simplify the discussion to a level that could gain understanding and support from the political leaderships.

Because science is changing dramatically, policies need to be flexible enough to adapt to these changes.

International Justice

International justice is at the heart of GOF research, Dr Selgelid said.

"Justice is about the fair sharing of the burdens and benefits of societal cooperation. There might be concern about GOF research that poses risks on all countries if the benefits that might result from that research aren't going to be fairly shared; for example, if the pharmaceutical or vaccine products that might be made available end up being unaffordable to some of the countries that shoulder the risks required for making those benefits possible," he explained.

"There's also the matter of the fair sharing of risks. Some countries are likely to be exposed to greater risks from GOF research than others. That will especially be the case in situations where the GOF research involves pathogens for which there are control measures or vaccines or treatments that are available in rich countries but aren't so affordable or available in poor countries," Dr Selgelid added.

People living in poor countries also might be more vulnerable to certain diseases than those living in wealthier countries.

In addition, international justice is important when considering the level of laboratory biocontainment precautions needed for conducting GOF research of concern like that on the H5N1 influenza virus.

"It might be setting too high of a standard to demand that research like this be done in [biosafety level-4 laboratories] because if we set a standard like that, we would be ruling out relevant research in less wealthy countries," Dr Selgelid said.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is expected to meet later this spring to finalize its recommendations.

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