Apr 15, 2020 - Science

Coronavirus spawns a new model for biosecurity

An illustration of a hand drawing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists are calling for a better biosecurity system to govern lab experiments involving potentially dangerous viruses.

Why it matters: COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated the tremendous human and economic damage even a relatively mild but new virus can wreak. With researchers increasingly able to create far more lethal pathogens in a lab using new gene engineering tools, science needs to rethink oversight for such experiments.

Background: A Washington Post article by Josh Rogin this week reignited speculation that the novel coronavirus could have originated in a Wuhan lab that had been studying bat coronaviruses.

  • There's no hard evidence that's the case, and the vast majority of scientists believe COVID-19 originated in animals before crossing over to human beings — a viral event known as a spillover seen in outbreaks like those that caused SARS and MERS.

But, but, but: The Wuhan lab had come under criticism in the past for conducting research that involved engineering a hybrid pathogen that contained parts of a bat coronavirus and parts of a SARS virus.

  • Such research is becoming more common around the world as scientists use new genetic tools in the lab to try to understand how viruses might evolve in the wild.
  • That's a challenge for biosecurity policies, which currently focus on work with known dangerous pathogens, rather than new ones being made in a lab.

In a piece in the journal Science, Harvard University researcher Sam Weiss Evans and his colleagues argue the field needs to rethink biosecurity governance.

  • Because new technologies could give rise to new threats, Evans believes scientists need to adopt a strategy of experimentation around biosecurity, rather than getting locked into firm categories of what is and isn't allowed.
  • "The biggest lesson we should take away from COVID-19 is that we shouldn't wait for a pandemic to demonstrate what is wrong with our assumptions," says Evans. "We need to shift our conception about what might constitute a threat."

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect Weiss’ affiliation with Harvard University (not Tufts University).

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