(p. A1) Some scientists and officials in the Biden administration are pushing for more oversight, globally, of risky bioresearch. One focus is laboratory work that enhances a pathogen or endows it with new properties—sometimes called “gain-of-function” research—which is often done to assess its potential to infect humans.
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(p. A12) Scientists and government officials have debated the risks of gain-of-function research since at least 2011, when virologists genetically modified the deadly H5N1 avian-flu virus so it could spread among ferrets.
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Dr. Collins and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the risks could be mitigated, and the information might accelerate efforts to develop vaccines or stop outbreaks.
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Then in 2014, the U.S. government declared a pause to gain-of-function research on certain dangerous viruses and set out to develop a new set of rules following incidents including an unintentional exposure of lab workers to anthrax bacteria and a discovery of some decades-old overlooked vials of smallpox virus.
Some research was allowed to continue: work seeking to identify coronaviruses that might jump to humans. Ralph Baric at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues published a study of a bat virus closely related to SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a disease that emerged in 2002 and killed nearly 800 people.
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They inserted a portion of the bat virus into a SARS virus adapted for lab tests in mice—creating a novel pathogen—and sought to see whether it would infect human cells. It did, and in mice it caused disease, though less deadly than SARS.
Then, he and his colleagues published research showing that another virus closely related to SARS infected both mice and human airway cells in the lab. They warned it was “poised for human emergence.”
Dr. Baric has said he thinks SARS-CoV-2 most likely evolved naturally to infect humans, yet he joined the scientists who in May  called for serious investigation of the lab-accident hypothesis as well.
Researchers in Wuhan used techniques similar to his to test whether eight SARS-like bat coronaviruses had the potential to infect human cells, according to a paper they published in 2017. It was part of an effort to find out how SARS-like bat viruses might make changes that would render them a danger to humans.
Biosafety levels in laboratory research range from 1—used in high-school or college labs for work that doesn’t pose a disease risk to humans—to 4, reserved for the most dangerous pathogens.
At least some of the bat-coronaviruses work at Wuhan was done in a level-2 lab, which some U.S. scientists say is too low a safety level for that kind of work.
For the full story, see:
Betsy McKay and Amy Dockser Marcus. “Virus Research Explodes, Igniting Worry.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021): A1 & A12.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 24, 2021, and has the title “Virus Research Has Exploded Since Covid-19 Hit. Is It Safe?”)