Why Sharing Viruses Is Good… For Science

26:46 minutes

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The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented era of global scientific collaboration. Just a few days after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was isolated, its genomic sequence was posted online and accessible to researchers around the world. Scientists quickly went to work trying to understand this brand new pathogen, and began to counter it with treatments and vaccines. 

But genetic sequences have their limits, and scientists also have to work with the real viruses. Sometimes there’s no substitute for a specimen. Sharing pathogens across borders is where things get a lot more complicated. A web of international laws govern some, but not all aspects of how pathogens are shared and stored. 

Science isn’t the only factor here—global politics shape responses to the tracking and detection of disease. 

What happens if countries are not on the friendliest terms with each other, or if they aren’t up to the same safety standards? Could viruses be misused or mishandled, potentially escaping containment? There are some historical examples that could be instructive.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic spurred cooperation between scientists, some governments downplayed or misled the world about the state of the pandemic. Does misinformation remain a threat, and if so, how can we prevent it?

Guest host Umair Irfan talks with Amber Hartman Scholz, head of science policy at Leibniz Institute DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures based in Braunschweig, Germany, to unpack the complex system of scientific virus sharing, and the importance of developing a better process. 

Later, Umair is joined by Gigi Gronvall, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, based in Baltimore Maryland, to discuss how far we’ve come in securing pathogenic specimens and the role of misinformation in promoting fears around the development of bioweapons.

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Segment Guests

Amber Hartman Scholz

Amber Hartman Scholz is Head of Science Policy at the Leibniz Institute, DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures in Braunschweig, Germany.

Gigi Gronvall

Gigi Gronvall is a Senior Scholar in the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland.

Segment Transcript

UMAIR IRFAN: The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented era of global scientific collaboration. Just a few days after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was isolated, its genomic sequence was posted online and accessible to researchers around the world. And scientists quickly went to work, trying to understand this brand new pathogen, and began to counter it with treatments and vaccines. Since then, scientists have continued uploading new sequences of the virus, identifying new variants and zeroing in on some of its most concerning traits.

But genetic sequences have their limits, and scientists also have to work with real viruses. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for a specimen. And that’s precisely where things get a lot more complicated. Joining me now to help us better understand this complex system of scientific virus sharing and why we need a better process is my guest. Dr. Amber Hartman Scholz is the head of science policy at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures based in Braunschweig, Germany. Dr. Scholz, welcome to Science Friday.

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: Thank you, Umair. You did a great job with the word, Braunschweig. That usually trips up American tongues.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, I lived in Germany briefly, so I had to pick that up a little bit.

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: You’re a pro, yeah.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, to begin with, I mean, why do we need whole viruses when we have genetic sequences, and they’re so easy to share around the world?

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: It’s funny you ask it that way. I think if you ask that question 10 or even less years ago, you would asked it the other way around. You would have said, well, why do we need sequences when we have viruses? Because, of course, for the last centuries, when scientists do work, they work with the biological material, that you work with the living stuff.

So if we actually turn back to your question, why do we need to have these viruses, there’s at least a couple of examples why you would want to have the real material. Number one is for a reference point, right? Because you want to know, this is the thing that caused the beginning of, in the case of the COVID pandemic, that this is what caused the disaster, right? This is sort of the starting point of this kind of living material.

And it can very well be in science that there are things about that biological specimen that you don’t uncover or realize until much later. Maybe it’s something to do with the proteins or something to do with the physical specimen. Maybe it’s something to do with the metabolites or proteins that are around there that actually give you information that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

The second place, of course, is that when it comes to building things like diagnostics in the very beginning, right, if you want to do a rapid test or a PCR test, you want to make sure that you have enough real biological material that you can prove that the thing that you’re trying to test hypothetically is actually the same thing that you have from the nature. So you need to have that real stuff, the real biological material around to make sure that the sequence-based stuff is what you think it is.

And of course, when it comes to vaccines and to any other types of development, of course, there are many stages along the way where you’re going to do a great job, having just that sequence data, which, so sequence data, I should probably back up for those of you out there that aren’t familiar with it. It basically tells us what are the instructions for making an organism.

Then when I want to actually go to doing experimental manipulations, it’s very sort of quickly in the development chain that I actually need to have that physical material to test out my hypothesis and make sure that I am doing what I think I can do based upon the inferences that I’ve made from the sequence data.

UMAIR IRFAN: You alluded to the fact that scientists have been sharing viruses longer than they’ve shared sequences. So how does that actually happen now? Is there sort of a standard international process?

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: Oh, I wish there was a standard international process. Probably the biggest impulse for standardization comes from something that’s a bit archaic, just something called the taxonomic codes of nomenclatures. If you’re in the field of taxonomy, you’re in the business of describing new species. You want to tell the scientific community and the world, stand at the top of a hill and say, I found a new being. Then what you have to do to prove that is show your scientific community– show them the money.

You have to take that organism that you’ve described, either plant and animal and microbe, and you have to deposit it into a collection. So, for example, for animals, you might frequently do that within a museum, for plants, maybe in a botanical garden. And if you were doing it for microbes, you would often deposit it in a microbial culture collection is what we call them, because the culture is the word, not culture like things that we enjoy, but culture is actually that term of art for bacterial cultures or a viral culture, being able to grow it up in the laboratory.

It turns out that, as with many different types of fields of science, the individual subdisciplines also have their own culture. And in this time, I mean, it actually in how we interact with each other type of sense. They actually have different ways of doing these things, and in particular, in the field of medicine and public health and urgent response. Because of the need to distribute rapidly in the cases of a public health emergency, actually, they don’t even really have time to do a formal description. So they basically just put it in a box and ship it to the people that they think might know something about this thing, right?

And so you end up having highly specialized, let’s call them closed or private collections, because you look under the microscope and you say, ah, this might be a flavivirus or whatever. And I think that my friend at the university X in city Y is the most likely person to be able to know about it. And so that person is the first person to get that. And then she receives that sample, and then she forwards it on to another colleague to confirm hers.

And so, unfortunately, in the field of sort of rapid public health response, the transfer of items is often done rather informally and rather intransparently. And this is OK if you’re trying to react quickly, but then if you want to try to go back and figure out who has what, where, when, and why, it can be really hard to figure that out. In fact, I can remember conversations here on campus when we were trying to figure out who has the SARS-CoV-2, and it was like, oh, yeah, let me go check. I think we had it a week ago, but now I’m not really sure. And it’s not to say that these things are not tightly regulated in a biosecurity sense. It’s just that the process and the procedures are, unfortunately, not well standardized.

Now, there are groups– for example, I work with a group called the European Virus Archive that does really try to thread the needle, if you will, to do both rapid response and also to deposit in a standardized predictable way and to quickly get things up online. So there are sort of middle and interim solutions, and there are other culture collections that really work on this. But I should say, I guess, it’s kind of a mixed bag.

UMAIR IRFAN: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. What are some of the international regulations or policies right now that we have that govern virus sharing? And what are some of the hurdles that they currently pose?

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: So there’s at least kind of three different buckets of international rules that come to mind, if you will. So I don’t want to get too wonky, but let me just kind of speak kind of high level. So if you’re talking about the World Health Organization, which is the international body that should certainly regulate health related things, including pathogens, there’s kind of two things that you have to look at. One is very broad and has a relatively long history. That’s the International Health Regulations, the IHR.

And these regulate how scientists, and in particular, WHO, reference laboratories and countries around the world should notify the World Health Organization when something’s amiss, right, when they suspect a new outbreak. They sort of regulate the notification process, but not necessarily the transfer of the organisms, which, as we talked about in the very beginning, is a necessary precondition for a lot of the further response work that needs to be done.

The other thing that’s in the WHO neighborhood is something called the PIP. It sounds so spunky and fun. It stands for the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness framework, so we realized pretty quickly it’s not quite as fun as you might hope. And this is a very specialized agreement that regulates the exchange and then the benefit sharing, the way, in this case, vaccines are distributed for pandemic influenza.

However, this covers very, very specific types of viruses, only a few strains of pandemic influenza, and does not extend to other things like novel viruses, for example, SARS-CoV-2. The really big gorilla in the room, if you will, is actually, has a home within the United Nations Environment Program. That’s something called the Convention on Biological Diversity. And this large agreement covers all of the biological diversity found within a country’s borders.


AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: So you sort of have an environmental agreement that is meant to encourage conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity that actually has reach into pathogens, which, of course, we don’t want to conserve at all. We actually would hope that they would die out, in many cases, probably. But those can be regulated under national legislation.

And then the second, “oh, wow,” moment is that there is no predictability about how countries, at the national level, regulate pathogens. For example, whether or not they do, if they do, when and how, and which kind of virus is under which conditions, or which kind of bacteria under which conditions. And so then it just becomes a lot of legal uncertainty in this space once you actually have to get into implementing it.

UMAIR IRFAN: So this patchwork system seems like it leaves a lot of holes for or room for things to go wrong. Has that happened before? I mean, are there any case studies or examples that stand out to you?

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: Yeah, there’s a couple of sort of famous, if you will, examples. One has to do with Indonesia and the sharing of flu samples in, I think, 2007. And basically, the story there is, Indonesia said, we have a right to receive benefits from sharing our resources. And in this case, they were specifically talking about the right for access to vaccines, that the vaccines were unaffordable. They provide the material, but they don’t get something back in return.

And that specific year, the vaccine development for the flu vaccine didn’t include quite the right amount of biological diversity of the flu samples that year, in part because of the withholding of the Indonesian samples, which meant that the efficacy of the flu vaccine that came out of that particular batch or lot that year was not as good as one might have hoped it could have been.

On the other hand, it actually leads, if you kind of look at the domino effect of discussions then after that, it leads to the PIP framework, which actually standardizes it and has the very positive effect that then the distribution of vaccines around the world, including for Indonesia, become much more transparent when it comes to flu.

UMAIR IRFAN: And another example of this patchwork international virus sharing system that comes to mind is what happened with the diagnostic test for the Zika virus outbreak that was happening in Brazil a few years ago. What happened there?

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: In America, particularly in Brazil, there were also both logistical, but also legal challenges to getting the viral samples out of Brazil. But like with most infectious diseases, it quickly left Brazil and patients wound up in many different countries where the logistics and the legal situation was not as challenging as it was in Brazil. And so a very early diagnostic kit was made using Zika samples that did not come from Brazil.

And what we actually learned after the fact with that was that the diagnostic kits had an unfortunately high false positive rate, which means people were told you have Zika when they actually didn’t. Now you might think, OK, well better that a diagnostic kit turns out that way, right? Better to be told you have a virus when you actually don’t than the other way that it doesn’t detect enough.

But actually, that’s not true. It’s really important to have reliable positives and negatives, because remember what Zika does. Zika causes microcephaly in fetuses. So there were pregnant women that took this diagnostic kit and then thought their babies would have microcephaly and not survive or be severely handicapped and chose to have an abortion because of their Zika virus results. And so these can have very real human outcomes, even though we’re talking about relatively techie scientific kinds of things.

UMAIR IRFAN: Then, given those stakes, say you have the ear of every health minister in the world. What’s on your wish list then? How can we be sharing viruses and pathogens better? Or what are some of the things that we could get started on right away?

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: Oh, man. If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me that. No, nobody’s asking me that. These are questions that get solved a lot above my pay grade, but we do what we can in academia to sort of put new ideas forward. I mean, the number one thing that you’d want to do is you would want to standardize things. I mean, standardization is super boring, but yet, this is what you need to do in this space so that you can react quickly, because it is only when you have the system set up, ready to go, that you can easily react.

I mean, think about it. What do I tell my kids in the morning? Lay your clothes out the night before so that you can get dressed quickly in the morning because we’re always late, right? And it’s the same thing when you’re responding to a global pandemic. Like, have the forms, the documents, the procedures, standardized, formalized, ready to go before the next one hits. Number two has to sort of be, agree that pathogens are not like rhinoceroses or pandas or orchids. It needs to have a special way of handling things.

And then, number three, we have to establish solid and strong infrastructures that allow for the proper predictable transparent handling of the viral material, as well as the molecular and metadata associated with those things. And it really should be not centralized in a single place in the world. It has to be distributed fair and equitable. And then belonging to that package of things, we have to be just, fair, and equitable.

We have to really think about if we standardize, if we are getting access to the viruses from the world, and we are working in a collaborative way, then when it comes time to save lives, protect the public health, we cannot then be nationalistic. Then we must, we are, I think, morally compelled to then equitably share diagnostics, and perhaps most importantly, when we’re talking about viruses, vaccines, the public health measures that we need to protect everybody.

And if we look back at this last pandemic, it was a bit of a free for all when it came to sharing the resources, and it was certainly a free for all when it came to distributing the vaccines. And I think all of that ties together in thinking about what are the right ways to be prepared, ready, standardized, and then ready to share fairly and equitably with the whole world.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s all the time we have. I’d like to thank my guest. Amber Hartman Scholz is the head of science policy at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures based in Braunschweig, Germany.

AMBER HARTMAN SCHOLZ: Hey, thank you, Umair. I appreciate your interest and your time. Take care.

UMAIR IRFAN: We’ve just been talking about the need to develop a better system to share viruses to improve our grasp of the science and to contain pandemics, but science isn’t the only factor here. Global politics are also shaping our responses to diseases. What happens if countries are not on the friendliest terms with each other, or if they aren’t up to the same safety standards? Could viruses be misused or mishandled, potentially escaping containment? There are some historical examples that could be instructive.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic spurred cooperation between scientists, we’ve seen some governments downplay or mislead the world about the state of the pandemic. Does misinformation pose a threat, and can we prevent it? Joining me now is my guest, Gigi Gronvall. She is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security based in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Gronvall, welcome to Science Friday.

GIGI GRONVALL: Thank you for having me.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. So just kind of to begin with, how important is it to get everyone on the same page when it comes to these best practices and security around these kinds of pathogens?

GIGI GRONVALL: It’s important, but it’s a task that never ends. So, just like education, there’s always new people to educate and train. You have to have programs in place where you’re training people, where you’re continuing to provide information and equipment so that people who work in laboratories can protect themselves and can do work safely and work on the international level to make sure that WHO can give the best guidance that it can.

UMAIR IRFAN: So then what are the threats or the risks that we have to be concerned about potentially for bad actors or for people who are maybe mishandling some of these dangerous pathogens? What are some of the risks to actually be concerned about? And how likely are some of these prospects?

GIGI GRONVALL: Well, there’s all kinds of things to worry about. I mean, we continually worry about the emergence of new threats from the natural environment. People continue to have not just COVID, but other diseases. We don’t investigate every single infection that might land somebody in the hospital. If people are working in the laboratory and there’s a mistake or some sort of accident, they could harm themselves and potentially have a loss of containment and potentially infect somebody else.

There are, of course, challenges where we worry about misuse of biological pathogens. A lot of what’s going on in Ukraine right now and some of the signaling that Russia has falsely claimed that Ukraine has a biological weapons program, that raises a lot of alarm bells because we know that Russia has a biological weapons program. And so we definitely worry that they will try to pass off a biological weapon as originating from Ukraine, but it’s actually from them.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, I’ve heard that theory, too. And I was hoping you could just elaborate on that. Was the US actually involved in any biological research in Ukraine and in what context?

GIGI GRONVALL: The work that the US funded in Ukraine and has funded in other parts of the world is really public health oriented. So we want to provide support so that laboratories can appropriately diagnose diseases and report them to the World Health Organization. And it has nothing to do with biological weapons. So that’s the program that Russia is attacked as being somehow nefarious, and it’s just not the case. And it’s disinformation.

UMAIR IRFAN: And the risks you described earlier about pathogens escaping containment, are there any case studies or precedents that stand out, and what should we learn from them?

GIGI GRONVALL: There have definitely been incidents where there’s been a mistake in the lab. If you work with a pathogen that has the potential to cause an infection and be contagious, there are lots of different things that you’re supposed to be doing, so that even if there’s one step where you have a loss of containment, there are many other ways that it’s not going to affect the person working in the lab who really does not want to catch their experiment and potentially infect other people. In the movies, you see people wearing the spacesuit sort of protection. That’s all there to try to prevent any infections in the person who’s doing the work so that they can work safely.

UMAIR IRFAN: So do you think that our ability to prevent lab leaks and these other kinds of hazards has improved? Do you think this is research that can be done safely?

GIGI GRONVALL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s been a lot of progress in biosafety over the decades. And there are some really sad examples of back decades ago with people working with the bacteria that causes anthrax at their laboratory bench. And then they reach over and have another puff of their cigarette, and then they end up giving themselves inhalational anthrax. Like, that’s how bad things were decades ago. Obviously, you don’t smoke or eat or drink in the laboratory anymore. It used to be back in the not that long ago, people would measure liquids by inhaling liquids into a tube and measuring it that way, which is not safe.

So, yes, there’s been a lot of improvement. There’s a lot of work to be done. I mean, when it comes to safety, when it comes to training, promoting biosafety standards and norms around the world, I mean, it doesn’t get the same sort of dollars that more glamorous aspects of research do. A lot of times, people will bring up some cases that were egregious and terrible from the ’70s. And it just doesn’t have the same resonance today when so much has changed in how we do laboratory work.

UMAIR IRFAN: And you mentioned earlier about Russian disinformation about virus research in Ukraine. I’m also thinking about how early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization said that China was not fully forthright about the extent of the pandemic. And then more recently, though, we saw South Africa, which discovered the Omicron variant and declared it to the world. They were greeted with international travel restrictions that hurt their economy. And it seems like there are some pretty perverse incentives here to cover up or mislead. And I’m wondering, how do you get that right? How important is it to get countries all to be forthright about their work on this?

GIGI GRONVALL: Absolutely. So what happened in South Africa was really counterproductive for future events. So why would a country say, oh, well, we discovered this terrible virus. We should all take precautions if, by announcing that, that means that everything shuts down, and it’s extremely punitive? That’s why we have the International Health Regulations. That’s why there are agreements in place before, so that we can concentrate on actually limiting the transmission of disease, and not singling out one country, the political goal versus an actual public health or scientific goal.

So yeah, that was definitely the wrong way to go. And I hope that next time, we do better because in that specific instance, they announced that they found Omicron, and the US had not found Omicron. So for a little while, people were thinking, oh, well, maybe this travel ban was a good idea. But it turns out, we just hadn’t analyzed those samples. There was a backlog. So, yeah, I mean, by the time the US imposed these measures on South Africa, Omicron was already spreading here. So it’s important that we get it much more right next time.

UMAIR IRFAN: I’m Umair Irfan, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And part of the equation here is not just how governments talk to each other, but how scientists talk to the public. I’m wondering, do you have any best practices for how to communicate with the general public about how scientists are doing this kind of high risk research? And how can they reassure people that everything is under control?

GIGI GRONVALL: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of problems when it comes to communication. I think first of all, people need to understand why the scientists are doing this. This is not something that people are doing just for the heck of it. I mean, it’s really important. We would not have the vaccines that we have for SARS-CoV-2 if we hadn’t had the research on other pathogens like MERS and SARS back in 2003. We would just not be in the same position where, a year after discovery, we’re vaccinating and protecting and saving so many lives.

So I think we can do better than what we did this time. And we can do it safely. But the importance is clear. And I think scientists, very often, a lot of the boring stuff kind of gets sloughed off of the communication. Like, all the oversight that goes into working with these kinds of pathogens, all the training, all the equipment, all the standards, and all the hoops that people have to jump through so that they do it correctly.

UMAIR IRFAN: Then, is there ever a point where you would not want to work with a pathogen? Or is there a scenario in which we would be better off just simply trying to eradicate a disease, rather than trying to work with it?

GIGI GRONVALL: Eradication is tricky. There’s so far only been one human pathogen that we’ve successfully eradicated, and that’s smallpox. I actually do think we should stop all research with that particular virus. And we should throw it in some bleach and be done with it. There’s a long controversy over whether or not we should hold on to the samples of smallpox that left over from the eradication campaign. So I would say, for that pathogen, sure.

But other things that are out there in the world, we do not know when they’re going to come out and bite us. And the circumstances that led to COVID which now, I mean, almost certainly, it was a natural emergence that came through wildlife markets in Wuhan.

Those circumstances where you have illegal and illegal wildlife trade, inappropriate land use, encroaching on animal habitats, much more mixing of stressed out bat populations and contact with humans, all those conditions are still kind of going to be with us for some time and that we’re not really addressing. So it’s going to be very important that we do what we can to learn about these diseases, to do what we can to make vaccines and drugs, so that we’re not here in a few more years.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s all the time we have. I want to thank my guest, Gigi Gronvall. She is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security based in Baltimore, Maryland.

GIGI GRONVALL: Thank you so much for having me.

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Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.

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