News | Feb. 16, 2023

Private-sector research could pose a pandemic risk. Here’s what to do about it

By Gerald Epstein Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

In 2018, Canadian academics with pharmaceutical industry funding made a stunning announcement. They had synthesized horsepox, a pathogen that no longer exists in nature and that is closely related to the smallpox virus, variola. The controversial product was meant as a vaccine candidate—intended to infect humans and confer immunity without being transmissible or pathogenic—but the biotechnology involved in its production could readily have been applied to create a pathogen with the potential to start a deadly pandemic.

As it was, the research raised questions about whether it lowered the bar for bad actors to synthesize variola as a biological weapon. But the study also highlighted a broader, perhaps less appreciated risk. By synthesizing a close cousin of a pandemic killer, the Canadian, pharma-backed researchers showed there is funding—and capability—outside the government to create and manipulate potential pandemic pathogens. In the United States, researchers with nongovernmental funding, unlike their government-funded counterparts, can perform experiments with so-called “enhanced potentially pandemic pathogens” largely free from regulation. These are germs that not only might trigger a pandemic but which researchers have made more virulent or transmissible in a lab. With a few exceptions, like for the original SARS virus (SARS-COV-1), no laws or regulations constrain the ability of independently funded companies to create or use lab-created pathogens with pandemic potential.

Click here to read more →