By Jessica Smrekar
Saving some of the most controversial discussions for the very last session, a conglomerate of private and government agencies came together to examine potentially pandemic pathogen care and oversight, nicknamed P3CO. This collection of experts included Gerald Epstein of the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy, Ryan Ritterson from Gryphon Scientific LLC, and Mary Delarosa of HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Each of these experts provided presentations that dissected the struggle between useful research of potentially pandemic pathogens (PPP) and the dual use this research may stimulate.
A large portion of the session was dedicated to analyzing the risk of gain of function studies with PPPs and how these risks compare to the benefits from such research. Gryphon is a specialized, small business consulting practice that has technical background in life sciences. Their analysis is dedicated to issues of global health and homeland security. This practice was contracted by the National Institutes of Health to run a risk and benefit analysis of gain of function research and provide an unbiased report of such research. This proved to be a difficult task, as forecasting realized benefits of scientific research is challenging and risk analyses are hindered by data gaps. Upon completion of this report, analysts found that though there are several concerning factors of gain of function research, such as lab accidents, accidental release and open sharing of research, the risk is relatively low when conducted in the proper manner. There was found to be a low risk of lab accidents or potential for accidental release and the information released to the public did not increase the risk of potential threats. With this information laid out, there was a plea to begin to fill in the data gaps that exist with missing biosafety information and to encourage timely and accurate incident reporting to keep the risks of this research from rising.
Funding for this research was also touched upon, which falls into the hands of the HHS. This focused on the potential for pandemics and the creation of enhanced pathogens. The rigorous system is set up to assess the research and review the risk and benefit analysis to establish the highest level of safety. P3CO and enhanced pathogens are the main concern in this review, which covers pathogens that are highly transmissible and highly virulent and research to enhance virulence or transmissibility. Such research runs through a multidisciplinary department evaluation and an advisory board to encourage transparency and public engagement. This is considered the Pre-Funding Review and from this review HHS determines if funding will be provided, denied, or if modifications need to be made in order to receive funding.
The strong stigma against research of potentially pandemic pathogens is difficult to dislodge, but this panel of experts took up the challenge and discussed the topic through a full spectrum of risks, benefits, and how the scientific and policy community are working to protect the global community from harmful exposure.