U.S. officials are weighing the benefits and risks of proposed experiments that might make a dangerous pathogen even worse — but the details of that review, and the exact nature of the experiments, aren’t being released to the public.
Scientists have argued for years over whether it’s ever justifiable to do experiments that might create “potential pandemic pathogens” — viruses or other germs that are likely to be highly contagious from person to person and capable of causing a significant number of illnesses and deaths.1
This week, HHS reconvened the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) for the first time in more than 2 years to look at ways to increase transparency. The current grant review process includes confidentiality restrictions to protect intellectual property and for security concerns. Board officials also made the case for review panel member anonymity, but opponents weren’t having it, arguing that for this type of research, transparency was paramount.
Scientists called for more openness about the committee’s work and the make-up of the committee itself to make sure committee members are “conflict-free” and “have the right skill set,” and so the public will understand why the work was approved, said Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Inglesby would also like risk reviews to undergo a public comment period before final approval of a project.2
“It seems perfectly reasonable to say that … if you want to do this kind of science, you sacrifice something” because “there are people 3000 miles away” who might be affected if a pathogen escaped, said Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.2