there is an urgent need to better regulate virology

ITen years ago, experiments that made an H5N1-type influenza virus more contagious caused a scandal: was it reasonable to manipulate pathogens to make them even more dangerous, on the pretext of developing vaccines and drugs that could protect us from them, in case they emerge in the wild? A decade later, the study of such “Frankenviruses” is still on the agenda in certain laboratories.

In recent months, several teams have carried out recombinations of SARS-CoV-2 variants to obtain potentially more lethal chimeras, in the United States and in London. In France, a team from the Institut Pasteur prepublished a study in June using “passaging”, a technique intended to bring out mutations allowing coronaviruses to adapt to human cells – in this case, virulence. remained unchanged. The monkeypox trip out of Africa also stimulated an American team which, the journal reported Science in September, wants to transfer genes from the deadliest bloodline to its cousin currently circulating in the world.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, this type of experimentation was carried out in Wuhan, within institutes specializing in the study of coronaviruses. Admittedly, the origin of the current health disaster remains a hotly debated – and skillfully maintained – mystery. The Beijing blackout on the data, but also the lack of transparency of the American organizations which collaborated with the Chinese institutes do not make it possible to decide between two hypotheses: that of a “natural” passage of the bat virus to humans via an intermediate host, as during the SARS and MERS epidemics; that of contamination by coronaviruses collected during scientific campaigns of samples from bats, whether or not they have been genetically modified in the laboratory.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers The “Frankenviruses” at the heart of the debates, after the emergence of Covid-19

But one certainty remains: the pandemic was born at the gates of the research institutes which had set themselves the task of preventing it. The risk of accidents, even in the most secure facilities, is well documented. The benefit of these so-called “gain of function” experiments seems much weaker than this danger.

Law void

In France, a legal vacuum remains on the creation of new highly pathogenic agents, and the body created in 2015 to monitor biosecurity is only advisory. The device deserves to be revisited, noted experts in the field in Medicine Science from March 2022.

In September, the WHO proposed “a global framework for the responsible use of life sciences”, acknowledging shortcomings in the management of biological risks in the broad sense and calling on Member States to tackle them. It therefore seems necessary to reassess the interest of certain experiments. But also that scientists and their supervisors are no longer the only evaluators of these research strategies, which must be able to be questioned by civil society – both in the academic framework and in the private sector.

Thinking must be global. In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created in response to concerns about the destructive potential of this dual technology – for civilian and military use, but also potentially terrorist. Faced with the existential threats generated by synthetic biology and virology, there is an urgent need to think about a comparable body.

The world

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