Infectious agents are a major source of death and disease worldwide. Research with infectious agents has provided many societal benefits but also has introduced concerns about the potential for negative impacts of modified pathogens on public health. There is an ongoing debate about what oversight, regulations and, potentially, legislative provisions are needed for a small subset of research with infectious agents commonly called gain of function research of concern (GOFROC) or enhanced potential pandemic pathogen (ePPP) research.
To develop a deeper scientific understanding, gathered from different perspectives of leading scientists who possess expertise on this issue, the American Society for Microbiology hosted a workshop. The goal of the event was to review the benefits and risks of GOFROC or ePPP research to science and society. The deliberation prompted 3 overarching recommendations from participants:
- The need for standardized research terminology and practices.
- Increased engagement and transparency with the public on infectious agents research.
- Strengthened biorisk management systems for safe, secure and responsible research.
- Research on infectious agents is necessary for understanding, monitoring and developing treatments and prevention measures against these agents. Moreover, basic research provides knowledge and insights that may prove useful in the future in ways unknown at the present. For example, basic coronavirus and mRNA vaccine research starting in the 1980s and 1990s enabled the rapid development of vaccines for COVID-19 in the 2020s.
- Gain of function research of concern, or enhanced potential pandemic pathogen research, makes up a very small fraction of all biological research. However, this category of experiments raises concerns about biosafety and biosecurity.
- Clearly defined terminologies for research of concern should be developed by the scientific community to avoid public confusion and highlight its practical benefits.
- Harmonized biorisk management standardization, training, mentoring and reporting can help improve safety and security for laboratory workers and the public.
- Expanded engagement and collaboration of scientists with policymakers and the public, including increased transparency on the risks and rewards of research with infectious agents, is needed.
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