there is an urgent need to better regulate virology

meTen years ago, the experiments that made an H5N1 influenza virus more contagious caused a scandal: was it reasonable to manipulate pathogens to make them even more dangerous, under the pretext of developing vaccines and drugs that could protect us from them, should they arise? In nature? A decade later, the study of such “Frankenviruses” is still on the agenda of certain laboratories.

In recent months, several teams have carried out recombinations of SARS-CoV-2 variants to obtain potentially more lethal chimeras, in the United States and in London. In France, a team from the Institut Pasteur previously published a study in June using “passaging,” a technique meant to reveal mutations that allow coronaviruses to adapt to human cells; in this case, virulence remained unchanged. Monkeypox’s journey out of Africa also spurred an American team, which the magazine reported. Sciences in September, he wants to transfer genes from the deadliest lineage to his cousin currently circulating in the world.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, this type of experimentation was carried out in Wuhan, within institutes specialized in the study of coronaviruses. It is true that the origin of the current health disaster remains a much-debated and skillfully maintained mystery. The Beijing blackout on the data, but also the lack of transparency of the American organizations that collaborated with the Chinese institutes do not allow us to decide between two hypotheses: that of a “natural” passage of the bat virus to humans through an intermediary host, such as during the SARS and MERS epidemics; that of contamination by coronaviruses collected during scientific campaigns from bat samples, whether or not they are genetically modified in the laboratory.

Also read: Article reserved for our subscribers The “Frankenviruses” at the center of the debates, after the emergence of Covid-19

But one certainty remains: the pandemic was born at the gates of the research institutes that had set themselves the task of preventing it. The risk of accidents, even in the safest installations, is well documented. The benefit of these so-called “gain-of-function” experiments seems much weaker than this danger.

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In France, there is still a legal vacuum on the creation of new highly pathogenic agents, and the body created in 2015 to control biosafety is only advisory. The device deserves a review, experts in the field said in science of medicine from March 2022.

In September, the WHO proposed “a global framework for the responsible use of life sciences”, acknowledging shortcomings in biorisk management broadly and urging Member States to address them. Therefore, it seems necessary to reassess the interest of certain experiments. But also that scientists and their supervisors are no longer the only evaluators of these research strategies, which must be able to be questioned by civil society, both in the academic framework and in the private sector.

Thinking must be global. In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created in response to concerns about the destructive potential of this dual technology, for civil and military use, but also potentially for terrorism. Given the existential threats generated by synthetic biology and virology, it is urgent to think of a comparable body.

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