U.S. scientists urge curbs on creating dangerous pathogens in labs

WASHINGTON, July 16 (PNA/Xinhua) — A group of prominent scientists have called for limits to lab experiments that could create dangerous pathogens such as the highly pathogenic strains of flu, the U.S. journal Science’s ScienceInsider blog reported Tuesday.

Three recent safety incidents involving smallpox, anthrax and bird flu in some of the top U.S. labs are a reminder of the “fallibility” of even the most secure labs, the report said, citing a statement from a group calling itself the Cambridge Working Group.

“An accidental infection with any pathogen is concerning. But accident risks with newly created ‘potential pandemic pathogens’ raises grave new concerns,” said the statement. “Laboratory creation of highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses, especially but not limited to influenza, poses substantially increased risks” that an accidental infection could trigger outbreaks difficult or impossible to control.

The group urged that experiments that could create potential pandemic strains “should be curtailed until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment” of the risks, potential benefits, and alternatives.

The scientists also called for a process akin to Asilomar, a 1975 summit that came up with guidelines for recombinant DNA technology.

The 18 signatories included scientists who have stridently opposed the so-called gain-of-function experiments, including virologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota and epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University.

Others included Nobelist Richard Roberts of New England Biolabs, former Harvard School of Public Health Dean Barry Bloom, and activist Edward Hammond of the Third World Network.

The ScienceInsider report said the Cambridge Working Group hopes more scientists will sign their statement.

Concerns about gain-of-function experiments first emerged in 2011 after two research teams genetically modified the H5N1 avian flu virus to make it more transmissible in mammals.

The controversial research sparked a year-long voluntary moratorium on the H5N1 experiments, although supporters of such studies say knowing which mutations help the virus spread in humans is useful for surveillance efforts and developing vaccines. (PNA/Xinhua)