Experts support additional oversight of pathogen research

The nation’s biosecurity advisors have backed a new set of tighter regulations for studies of pathogens with the potential to harm humans.
However, they raised so many concerns that the new recommendations will likely be modified before they’re finalized as guidelines, reports Sara Reardon at Nature.
In the past, scientists aiming to alter pathogens were subject to extra oversight if their organisms of interest were on a list of “select agents” — such as the coronavirus or the bacterium that causes anthrax. This additional review kicks in if the scientists plan certain categories of concerning research, such as adding drug resistance or changing the species a pathogen could infect.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) unanimously — if hesitantly, on the part of some members — supported new rules that would add to oversight on studies of any pathogen that infects people, animals, or plants at the Jan. 27 meeting. The regulations would apply to work “reasonably anticipated” to generate a pathogen that could create a “severe threat to public health.”
“The recommendation reflects the heightened concern about biosafety and biosecurity catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Jocelyn Kaiser at Science. “Many virologists worry the new reviews could delay work with relatively benign agents such as cold viruses, herpesviruses, and viruses modified to treat cancer.”
Some board members suggested the new rules might make it more difficult to develop vaccines and treatments for rapidly evolving pathogens, reports Sarah Owermohle at STAT.
Gerald Parker, the chair of NSABB and a biosecurity expert at Texas A&M, said the full review would likely be required for “a very small subset of research.”
It’s not clear when the new rules might be modified and adopted by the National Institutes of Health, which funds much of the nation’s biological research. The NSABB recommended the nation create a special office to help researchers deal with the additional review.
The changes would only apply to studies funded by the U.S. government, though some committee members expressed interest in regulating privately funded research as well. Such a change would likely require Congressional action.