Your article “Why the following pandemic lab can be made” (Great reading, 18 November) rightly warns about the dangers of so-called profit-from-function research. What it has failed to mention is that we do not even appreciate the full extent of those dangers due to the pervasive opacity surrounding laboratory biosafety.
At present, laboratories conducting such bio-engineering research are not required to tell the public what they are doing – even when there is an accident. Our survey of biosafety officers from early 2020 highlights how little we know. In the survey, 63 percent of respondents admitted that they do not report accidents to anyone outside their organization, and almost no one does so in public or immediately.
Given this, it is not surprising that the FT had to rely on the Freedom of Information Act to obtain evidence of lax security practices at the Influenza Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Laboratories pursuing high-risk research have long maintained that their safety is impeccable, without much data supporting their claims. And keeping a laboratory accident a secret can be dangerous. If someone is potentially infected and laboratories fail to report it in public, it becomes impossible to monitor possible spread or take action to prevent future accidents.
Not all laboratories have a problem with public reporting. The Galveston National Laboratory is an excellent example, listing every laboratory accident publicly on its website for the past 15 years. Similarly, the National Bio- and Agricultural Defense Facility – the newest high-inclusion laboratory in the US – is exemplary in defending the need for transparency. Recently, leading biosafety figures have argued that this degree of openness should be a universal practice.
By reporting accidents and near misses transparently, we can reduce the risk of recurrence.
Visiting Researcher, Technion, Israel
Institute of Technology, Rehovot, Israel
Joshua Teperowski Monrad
Researcher, Biosecurity Research Group
Future of Humanity Institute
University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom