Are pathogens getting ahead of us?

Coronavirus pathogen (Pixabay/Gerd Altmann)

Three years after the Covid-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic, scientists warn that little has been done to beef up our biorisk defences, leaving us exposed to future outbreaks.

Once considered with utmost respect, scientists may be included among the collateral victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Public health authorities came under fire, as unclear messaging on masking and other risks angered the public, while lab researchers also saw trust in their work decline, as questions over the origins of the deadly pathogen emerged.

Now, scientists worry that the post-pandemic momentum to act on biosafety risks is waning, even as glaring issues such as a lack of transparency and lax research rules remain unfixed.

Ultimately, the impact of Covid-19 was all too real for populations and healthcare workers around the world: Overwhelmed hospitals, oxygen shortages, orphaned children and rising poverty as strict lockdowns limited the most vulnerable from earning their day-to-day living, were just a few of the issues. And in many countries in the Global South, already reeling from other epidemics such as cholera in Latin America and Ebola in Congo, the impact was twofold.

For scientists observing the crisis unfold, the general response has been disappointing.

“The public health response that we have seen has not been very positive,” Sandra López-Vergès, a senior virology researcher at Gorgas Memorial Institute in Panama, told Geneva Solutions about her concerns regarding Latin America.  “There has been a lack of funding. I don’t think we have understood well the importance of healthcare workers at all levels, so there’s not a lot of preventive health.”

She said the region’s acute inequalities have also exacerbated the situation. “The big, big inequalities in Latin American mean that people are exposed to different risks as well as response access, which may make outbreaks easier to spread.”

Doomsday scenario

López-Vergès joined hundreds of other scientists, ethics specialists and public health authorities, in Geneva last week at a conference entitled “Creating the Framework for Tomorrow’s Pathogen Research”, part of a series on pathogen risks organised by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Launched in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, the bulletin is a publication focusing on tracking existential and man-made threats.

Its Doomsday Clock, often cited by mainstream media, is a symbolic tracker of human self-destruction, following the advancement of man-made crises such as climate change and bioweapons.

For Rachel Bronson, the Bulletin’s president & CEO, it’s important to convene scientists in a global conversation as rising political polarisation increasingly sows doubt over their own work.

She told Geneva Solutions that greater transparency was key for the work of scientists researching pathogens, as Covid-19 showed with the development of vaccines in record time. However, “the fact that we do not know the origins of the last pandemic, whether it naturally occurred or could have been a lab leak, should alert us to how difficult it’s going to be to figure this out in the future,” she said.

Meanwhile, she worried that not enough was being done to regulate scientific research, even as it became more and more advanced. Labs around the world, for example, are storing various viruses, which are sometimes used for investigative purposes, including for what is known as “gain of function” research. This involves manipulation of micro-organisms or certain forms of genetic engineering, in order to better understand the emergence of new strains and diseases and to develop treatments – but such tinkering may also lead to the development of more virulent viruses.

“What’s so frustrating is that, regarding governance structures that seemed so obvious a year ago, we’ve lost momentum for putting them in place,” said Bronson. “We are trying to keep the spotlight on these issues and make sure that civic organisations are engaged in this and not leave it just to governments and policy-makers, because they need the pressure and focus from us.”

Gustavo Palacios, professor of microbiology at the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the United States, was more blunt. “One of the major risks is that we have a very nonchalant approach to do research on pathogens.”

He said investigations used to be “heavily regulated and very autocratic, but there was a reason why they were like that.” Talent working in pathogen research now may not be of the same level as before and unable to sustain highly regulated work, he added.

Transparency and biosecurity

Looming in the background over concerns regarding the handling, storage and research on pathogens, is the enduring question about the origins of Covid-19 in China. After initially censoring the outbreak, Beijing later hindered international investigations into the sources of the outbreak into China, and, according to the New York Times, muffled academic discussion in journals and databases.

Questions still remain on whether the outbreak may have been caused by zoonotic contamination, from contact with wild animals such as those for sale at the wet market in Wuhan, or from a possible laboratory leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The increasing pressure of human development on natural habitats has made such spillovers the leading cause of recent pandemics, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

But George Gao, vice president of China’s National Natural Science Foundation, sidestepped the issue at the Geneva conference, telling participants that China had been transparent in sharing information on Covid-19 and all the guidelines for biosafety were in place when the virus was identified. “There were lots of conspiracy stories: that it was man-made, that there were lab leakages… but where are the facts? Facts are facts,” Gao said.

In a bid to address the many public health shortcomings that the Covid-19 pandemic exposed, WHO member states have been negotiating a future pandemic treaty, which aims to outline how to deal with future health crises. Set for adoption next May, the treaty will build upon the 2005-era International Health Regulations (IHR), dealing with health emergencies more generally, and also currently under revision. Among the proposals being considered are guidelines for more rigorous regulation of laboratory safety and gain-of-function research, to help curb the accidental or intentional release of new pathogens. In September 2022, the WHO published a set of guidelines on biosafety which may be incorporated into a future agreement.

Read more: Pandemic treaty: what does (and doesn’t) the draft say?

While other UN protocols on the development, distribution and use of chemical and biological weapons exist, many observers say that voids remain in their implementation.

For Palacios, it all boils down to transparency. “We need a new system to encourage that transparency. If you keep for yourself certain information, then all the good things that could come from the actions from that technology could not be usable.”

Similarly to nuclear research and development, he said an international agency supervising actions by states should exist for biosecurity, to ensure transparency and sanction non cooperative states.

A fleeting sense of safety

Implementation of safe and secure standards for working with pathogens may be challenging for certain countries. Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases explained that a lack of resources among states may generate polarisation between the haves and the have-nots.

López-Vergès said this was a real issue in Latin America, where countries may not have the local resources and experts to implement standards of biosecurity and biosafety when confronted with pandemics and other biorisks. “It is perhaps the moment when we need to strengthen networks of experts,” she said. “We are asking a lot about transparency, but in order to be transparent, you have to be and feel safe.”

But with farmed animals raised in compact, unnatural spaces and as climate change and habitat encroachment displace wild fauna, some feel the threat of the next zoonotic pandemic is looming, making that sense of security harder to achieve.

“I can’t see it getting any better,” Gupta said. “Many of the causes of zoonosis are entrenched in society. As humans, we are becoming more intensive in the way we do everything. It is hard to see how we will draw back from man’s quest to generate capital and wealth.”