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Virology is part of the golden age of health : Don’t dismantle it

A nurse administers a COVID-19 test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In the 21st century, the United States enjoys a golden age of health compared to previous centuries; this has been driven by years of scientific discovery. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Despite the ominous threat and challenges posed by the pandemic, a worldwide consortium of virologists, immunologists and microbiologists collaborated with scientists from allied disciplines, such as infectious diseases and epidemiology. They confronted the virus through research which resulted in the development of rapid tests, vaccines, antivirals, monoclonal antibodies and a growing understanding of COVID-19 disease. 

However, the pandemic also brought new scrutiny to science. On Friday, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) met to consider new oversight of virology research. Safety in all research, and particularly that with pathogens, is of paramount importance. However, new oversight should be directed by rational discourse, evidence and risk assessment. Over-regulation could unduly constrain our ability to respond to future viral pandemic threats. 

The golden age of health began with the discovery and widespread use of penicillin, followed by years of scientific research that brought an understanding of bacterial, parasitic, fungal and viral infections.  The acquisition of this knowledge enabled the development of drugs, vaccines and other treatments which dramatically reduced the morbidity and mortality of infectious diseases.  This has been so successful that many people living today are unaware of the threats posed by polio, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, influenza, tetanus, yellow fever, hepatitis, chicken pox, mumps, typhoid, syphilis, gonorrhea and so many other bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal infections.  

Prior to the development of medical interventions, these pathogens often resulted in lasting adverse effects and death. In addition, many of these diseases disproportionately affect young children and people with health disparities.  Paradoxically, as a result of the golden age, many people today fail to appreciate that these pathogens still pose a threat, many reject the vaccines that prevent their re-emergence, and presume the golden age will simply continue.   

But our golden age is actually waning. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are on the rise, viral diseases that we thought were under control through vaccines and public health measures are making an alarming comeback and the specter of emerging viral pandemics is all too real, as novel viruses appear with increasing frequency. In addition, research is showing more links between viruses and long-term diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. And all the while widespread misinformation and conspiracy theories deliberately sow doubts about the integrity of science and the safety of virus research.   

The COVID-19 pandemic showed how truly vulnerable we are to biological threats. This is a time when we need strong life science and virology research more than ever. Yet science, and particularly virology, is in peril. The persistent and widespread dissemination of misinformation and conspiracy theories negatively influences large portions of the population. These loud, largely unchecked voices have left many in the general public with, at best, doubts or suspicions about the validity, utility and safety of virology research. At worst, extreme groups claim that virology is completely unregulated and virologists are unethical, profit-driven or reckless in their research. This is simply not true. Virological research in the U.S. is tightly regulated by federal agencies and overseen by institutional biosafety committees that manage the safety and practice of laboratory research at the local level. 

Still, these concerns have led to a debate on stricter restrictions on virus research and new regulations on virology in general. One hundred fifty-six working virologists have taken a stand to provide a definitive statement to address misinformation and urge that the oversight of virology research must be well-reasoned and driven by science and evidence, not conspiracy theories. While there is no argument that the safety of pathogen-related research must be continually monitored and appropriately regulated, new regulations which are redundant with current regulatory procedures, or overly cumbersome, may lead to future failures in pandemic preparation and response.  

Worse, ill-founded policy may adversely affect even the most basic virology research, essentially strangling the ability of the U.S. to combat the immense human and economic toll that viral diseases cause each year. The U.S. could be beholden to the rest of the world for pandemic knowledge, vaccine development and virology discoveries. It is essential that a balanced, evidence-based discourse be presented to address public concern while maintaining and expanding much-needed research in virology.

Science is society’s best defense against the existential threats we face; protecting the scientific enterprise is a critical priority for all scientists and concerned citizens. At this moment, we must work together to protect virology to maintain its critical role in improving human, animal, plant and ecosystem health. This is a prerequisite to preserving and continuing the golden age of health. 

James Alwine is a virologist and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, a visiting professor at the University of Arizona, a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a virologist and professor at the University of Arizona, a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and past president of the American Society for Virology. 

Tags Antibiotic resistance Coronavirus COVID-19 Politics of the United States Vaccines

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