Research and responsibility: European National Science Academies make recommendations on Gain of Function research
In Gain of Function studies, genes in viruses are experimentally modified to study the mechanism of virus spread. In a new report published today, the European National Science Academies (EASAC) discuss the risks and benefits of this type of research and recommend a case-to-case risk assessment and an increased public dialogue.
Recent years have confirmed that the threat of pandemics is a real one. Mutations of viruses – in particular avian influenza – have kept the public and policy-makers on the alert. The potential human and economic costs of pandemics, an uncontrolled spread of infectious diseases in a population, are substantial. Therefore, effective prevention is high on the agenda in many EU Member States.
The scientific community has contributed to preparedness for future influenza pandemics by engaging in innovative research. In particular Gain of Function research, which involves experimental modification of genes in viruses to gain a clearer scientific understanding of the biological mechanisms at work including those responsible for virus spread from animals to humans and transmissibility among humans. However, research with viruses brings with it the potential twin risk of unintentional accidents and intentional misuse.
Researchers have not always agreed on how to balance the potential benefits of Gain of Function research and its potential risks. Triggered by recent controversy among virologists in Europe and the US, EASAC undertook to assemble a group of leading European scientists to agree on an analysis of the current situation and recommendations for future policies.
Whilst acknowledging that good practices and stringent regulations are already largely in place in Europe, the recommendations highlight a number of important issues. These include scientific responsibility (which should be integrated at researcher, institution and funder levels), benefit-risk assessment, research review and management systems, biosafety and biosecurity advisory body options at national and international levels and the publication of sensitive information. EASAC emphasises that openness and public engagement are imperative and that there should be continuing dialogue between the scientific community and the public about the risks and benefits of Gain of Function research.
A public discussion event, with senior scientists from the EU and the US, as well as senior EU policy-makers, will be held on 21 October at 12:00 at the Palace of the Academies (info and registration)
EASAC is formed by the national science academies of the EU Member States, to collaborate in giving advice to European policy-makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard. Through EASAC, the academies work together to provide independent, expert, evidence-based advice about the scientific aspects of European policies to those who make or influence policy within the European institutions.
Professor Sir John Skehel, Francis Crick Institute, UK
Sofie Vanthournout, Head of EASAC Brussels Office
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