Four researchers sit at work stations wearing safety suits

Expert Task Force Releases Framework for Safer Pathogen Research

February 29, 2024

A new report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Independent Task Force on Research with Pandemic Risks proposes a new framework for more safe, secure, and responsible pathogen research. The findings and recommendations of the new report, titled “A Framework For Tomorrow’s Pathogen Research,” were presented at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

Formed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the task force is composed of experts with backgrounds in biosafety, biosecurity, epidemiology, ethics, governance, virology, and other areas who endorse the report. Among its members is W. Ian Lipkin, MD, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity and John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“Research with infectious agents is essential for clinical medicine and public health. Our goals in drafting this report were to provide guidelines for ensuring that this research can be done safely and to enhance public support for it,” says Lipkin.

The report discusses the potential benefits of virology research and outlines how advances in science and technology potentially increase certain benefits. It then focuses on some of the potential risks of virology research, including biosafety and biosecurity, and outlines how advances in science and technology potentially increase some of these risks. The task force examined ethical obligations to make research with pandemic risks more safe, secure, and responsible, suggesting actionable and sustainable strategies to effectively maximize the potential benefits and mitigate the foreseeable potential harms of research with known or potential pandemic pathogens while attending to issues of equity and proportionality.

The report reviews the contemporary governance space for research with known or potential pandemic pathogens and argues that effective legislation, regulations, policies, and guidelines specifically regulating such research will strengthen the scientific enterprise and should be put in place without delay. It discusses challenges in building and sustaining trust in science in general and research with pandemic risks more specifically.

Key recommendations include:

  • Research with high-risk pathogens should have high-probability benefits for public health.
  • Where feasible, research questions about pathogens with pandemic risk should be addressed using surrogate systems, or by taking advantage of loss-of-function experiments on current human viruses.
  • International protocols should be established for high-risk research on pathogens. Those protocols should include methods for both sample collection and laboratory work.
  • High-risk pathogen research should be monitored locally, nationally, and internationally. Funds should be allocated to optimize biorisk management strategies. 
  • Scientific journals and their editors should enforce timely data-sharing and research integrity for the manuscripts they publish.

Currently, across the world, most occupational health and safety governance adequately weighs the direct biosafety risks to the researcher in the laboratory, but there is a small subset of research on known or potential pandemic pathogens for which biosafety risks go beyond the laboratory and affect the health of significantly larger groups of humans or other animals. If a virus has true pandemic potential, the entire world can be affected by an accident. Since navigating high-risk research with pandemic risks warrants additional precautions, the task force’s overarching aim is to create a safe, secure, and responsible research environment for researchers, and in so doing, to earn public trust.

(Read more at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)