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An Eye on the Bugs

A new report from a US advisory group says oversight of risky pathogen research could be strengthened, ScienceInsider reports.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) working group found that while only a small portion of gain-of-function pathogen studies may pose a risk, oversight policies vary and may not be sufficient.

Concerns regarding GOF boiled up in 2011 as two research teams modified avian flu strains to study how the bug spreads. These studies were published without some details due to worries about bioterrorism, and led to a one-year moratorium on GOF work. Though that moratorium has ended, ScienceInsider adds that the US stopped 18 GOF studies of MERS and SARS it was funding so NSABB and the National Research Council could review the risks and benefits of such studies, though the National Institutes of Health exempted some studies from the ban.

In its report, the group defines risky GOF studies as ones that involve a pathogen that is highly transmissible among mammals, highly virulent in mammals, and resistant to control measures or spreads more easily than circulating strains. It recommends that such risky GOF studies be subject to careful biosafety and biosecurity review. In particular, they say that risky study proposals be reviewed based on seven criteria, including whether the study is meritorious, whether the institute and researchers are capable of performing the work safely and securely, and whether there are alternative approaches to studying the issue.

ScienceInsider adds that this report, along with a risk-benefit analysis commissioned by NIH, will likely help frame an upcoming discussion at NSABB.