Experts Rise in Defense of Sensitive Disease Studies

A Chinese laboratory worker puts on protective clothing at the Beijing Center of Disease Control in 2013. A group of 36 scientists issued a statement this week in defense of sensitive pathogen research.
A Chinese laboratory worker puts on protective clothing at the Beijing Center of Disease Control in 2013. A group of 36 scientists issued a statement this week in defense of sensitive pathogen research. (AFP/Getty Images)

A coalition of scientists defended studies on hazardous pathogens after laboratory missteps, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reports.

"Biomedical research on potentially dangerous pathogens can be performed safely and is essential," the new, 36-member group said in a statement quoted by the news service on Wednesday. The signers included Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, key proponents of research that can produce deadlier forms of avian influenza.

The "Scientists for Science" coalition issued the remarks on the heels of several safety incidents at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including an unintended transfer of avian flu from its headquarters in Atlanta. A second lapse prompted fears that dozens of CDC workers had been exposed to anthrax, shortly before workers in Maryland discovered a cache of forgotten smallpox samples at a Food and Drug Administration facility.

The new group's members said such incidents highlight the importance of safety measures at laboratories responsible for handling dangerous disease agents. However, they cautioned against restricting research conducted at such sites.

"Significant resources have been invested globally to build and operate [Biosafety Level 3] and [Biosafety Level 4] facilities, and to mitigate risk in a variety of ways, involving regulatory requirements, facility engineering and training. Ensuring that these facilities operate safely and are staffed effectively so that risk is minimized is our most important line of defense, as opposed to limiting the types of experiments that are done," the coalition stated.

One member said the organization could provide a forum for participants "to discuss how to carry out experiments with dangerous pathogens safely and to share good practice."

"We are convinced that using rhetoric or posturing to make points is counterproductive and does not serve science well," said Paul Duprex, a microbiologist at Boston University. "When necessary we will proactively respond to statements which are either damaging or simply erroneous."

July 31, 2014
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A coalition of scientists defended studies on hazardous pathogens after laboratory missteps, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reports.