Credit CDC PHIL
With three recent high profile laboratory `incidents’ at CDC and FDA labs in the past couple of months – and ongoing concerns in the biosecurity and biosafety community over controversial `Gain of Function’ research (experiments that seek to enhance the virulence, transmissibility or host range of dangerous pathogens) – scientists are staking out their positions on both sides of this contentious debate.
Yesterday, in Updating The Cambridge Working Group, I highlighted the growing roster of scientists who have signed on to their consensus statement, which urges caution, and better regulation, of lab research on dangerous pathogens.
Today, I was made aware of another group – Scientists for Science – via a tweet from Professor Vincent Racaniello, which states their position that biomedical research on potentially dangerous pathogens is not only scientifically essential, it can be conducted safely.
The impressive list of founding scientists includes Professor Racaniello, Yoshiro Kawaoka, and Ron Fouchier – all familiar names to readers of this blog.
As I’ve printed the Cambridge Working Group’s consensus statement and list of supporters, in the interest of fairness, I’ll do the same with this group as well.
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.
Scientists for Science have a range of opinions on how risk is best assessed. However, maintaining dogmatic positions serves no good purpose; only by engaging in open constructive debate can we learn from one another’s experience. Most importantly, we are united as experts committed to ensuring public health is not compromised and the reputation of science in general, and microbiology in particular, is defended.
We will use this forum to provide both scientists and the general public accurate information and to foster open and unbiased discourse on how to address these important contemporary issues in microbiology.
- Raul Andino, University of California, San Francisco
- Wendy Barclay, Imperial College London
- Constance Cepko, Harvard University
- Terence Dermody, Vanderbilt University
- Dickson Despommier, Columbia University
- Christian Drosten, University of Bonn Medical Centre
- Peter Doherty, University of Melbourne
- Paul Duprex, Boston University
- Rebecca Dutch, University of Kentucky
- Richard Elliott, University of Glasgow
- Mary Estes, Baylor College of Medicine
- Matthew Evans, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai
- Ron Fouchier, Erasmus Medical Center
- Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai
- Elodie Ghedin, New York University
- Yoshihiro Kawaoka, University of Wisconsin
- Wyndham W. Lathem, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
- Karla Kirkegaard, Stanford University
- Elke Muhlberger, Boston University
- Peter Palese, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai
- Ann Palmenberg, University of Wisconsin
- Andrew Pekosz, Johns Hopkins University
- Julie Pfeiffer, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
- Glenn Rall, Fox Chase Cancer Center
- Vincent Racaniello, Columbia University
- Charles Rice, Rockefeller University
- Erica Ollmann Saphire, The Scripps Research Institute
- Stacey Schultz-Cherry, St. Jude Childrens Research Hospital
- Bert Semler, University of California, Irvine
- Peter Sarnow, Stanford University
- Michael Schmidt, Medical University of South Carolina
- Saul Silverstein, Columbia University
- Derek Smith, University of Cambridge
- Geoffrey Smith, University of Cambridge
- Benjamin tenOever, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai
- Sean Whelan, Harvard University
- Harald zur Hausen, German Cancer Research Center
My only hope is that scientists on both sides of this issue will engage in productive talks, and devise some workable solutions, rather than just setting off another round of heated debate that goes nowhere.
Well, one can always hope.