U.S. Tightens Rules on Risky Virus Research

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The White House has unveiled tighter rules for research on potentially dangerous microbes and toxins, in an effort to stave off laboratory accidents that could unleash a pandemic.

The new policy, published Monday evening, arrives after years of deliberations by an expert panel and a charged public debate over whether Covid arose from an animal market or a laboratory in China.

A number of researchers worried that the government had been too lax about lab safety in the past, with some even calling for the creation of an independent agency to make decisions about risky experiments that could allow viruses, bacteria or fungi to spread quickly between people or become more deadly. But others warned against creating restrictive rules that would stifle valuable research without making people safer.

The debate grew sharper during the pandemic, as politicians raised questions about the origin of Covid. Those who suggested it came from a lab raised concerns about studies that tweaked pathogens to make them more dangerous — sometimes known as “gain of function” research.

The new policy, which applies to research funded by the federal government, strengthens the government’s oversight by replacing a short list of dangerous pathogens with broad categories into which more pathogens might fall. The policy pays attention not only to human pathogens, but also those that could threaten crops and livestock. And it provides more details about the kinds of experiments that would draw the attention of government regulators.

The rules will take effect in a year, giving government agencies and departments time to update their guidance to meet the new requirements.

“It’s a big and important step forward,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a longtime proponent of stricter safety regulations. “I think this policy is what any reasonable member of the public would expect is in place in terms of oversight of the world’s most transmissible and lethal organisms.”

Still, the policy does not embrace the most aggressive proposals made by lab safety proponents, such as creating an independent regulatory agency. It also makes exemptions for certain types of research, including disease surveillance and vaccine development. And some parts of the policy are recommendations rather than government-enforced requirements.

“It’s a moderate shift in policy, with a number of more significant signals about how the White House expects the issue to be treated moving forward,” said Nicholas Evans, an ethicist at University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Experts have been waiting for the policy for more than a year. Still, some said they were surprised that it came out at such a politically fraught moment. “I wasn’t expecting anything, especially in an election year,” Dr. Evans said. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Under the new policy, scientists who want to carry out experiments will need to run their proposals past their universities or research institutions, which will to determine if the work poses a risk. Potentially dangerous proposals will then be reviewed by government agencies. The most scrutiny will go to experiments that could result in the most dangerous outcomes, such as those tweaking pathogens that could start a pandemic.

In a guidance document, the White House provided examples of research that would be expected to come under such scrutiny. In one case, they envisioned scientists trying to understand the evolutionary steps a pathogen needed to transmit more easily between humans. The researchers might try to produce a transmissible strain to study, for example, by repeatedly infecting human cells in petri dishes, allowing the pathogens to evolve more efficient ways to enter the cells.

Scientists who do not follow the new policy could become ineligible for federal funding for their work. Their entire institution may have its support for life science research cut off as well.

One of the weaknesses of existing policies is that they only apply to funding given out by the federal government. But for years, the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies have struggled with stagnant funding, leading some researchers to turn instead to private sources. In recent years, for example, crypto titans have poured money into pandemic prevention research.

The new policy does not give the government direct regulation of privately funded research. But it does say that research institutions that receive any federal money for life-science research should apply a similar oversight to scientists doing research with support from outside the government.

“This effectively limits them, as the N.I.H. does a lot of work everywhere in the world,” Dr. Evans said.

The new policy takes into account the advances in biotechnology that could lead to new risks. When pathogens become extinct, for example, they can be resurrected by recreating their genomes. Research on extinct pathogens will draw the highest levels of scrutiny.

Dr. Evans also noted that the new rules emphasize the risk that lab research can have on plants and animals. In the 20th century, the United States and Russia both carried out extensive research on crop-destroying pathogens such as wheat-killing fungi as part of their biological weapons programs. “It’s significant as a signal the White House is sending,” Dr. Evans said.

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard and a longtime critic of the government’s policy, gave the new one a grade of A minus. “I think it’s a lot clearer and more specific in many ways than the old guidance,” he said. But he was disappointed that the government will not provide detailed information to the public about the risky research it evaluates. “The transparency is far from transparent,” he said.

Scientists who have warned of the dangers of impeding useful virus research were also largely optimistic about the new rules.

Gigi Gronvall, a biosafety specialist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the policy’s success would depend on how federal health officials interpreted it, but applauded the way it recognized the value of research needed during a crisis, such as the current bird flu outbreak.

“I was cautiously optimistic in reading through it,” she said of the policy. “It seems like the orientation is for it to be thoughtfully implemented so it doesn’t have a chilling effect on needed research.”

Anice Lowen, an influenza virologist at Emory University, said the expanded scope of the new policy was “reasonable.” She said, for instance, that the decision not to create an entirely new review body helped to alleviate concerns about how unwieldy the process might become.

Still, she said, ambiguities in the instructions for assessing risks in certain experiments made it difficult to know how different university and health officials would police them.

“I think there will be more reviews carried out, and more research will be slowed down because of it,” she said.

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