Gain-of-Function Research Legislation in Wisconsin

Last Updated – January 13, 2023

The Wisconsin State Assembly’s Colleges and Universities Committee conducted a public hearing for Assembly Bill 413 (AB 413) on January 10, 2024. Justin Kinney and Bryce Nickels, co-founders of Biosafety Now, spoke at this hearing (click here to read Justin’s testimony). The hearing can be watched at Wisconsin Eye. Further details about the bill and the hearing were reported by Science Magazine, the Wisconsin Examiner, and Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Senate Health Committee has scheduled a public hearing for Senate Bill 401 (SB 401) on January 18 at 10:00 AM CST.

Testimony in Support of WIsconsin AB 413

January 10, 2024

Justin Kinney and Richard Ebright op-ed

September 6, 2024
OCTOBER 5, 2023

If Wisconsin bans dangerous pathogens research, who really wins and loses?

Listen to our X Space from October 5, 2023 with Wisconsin Watch reporter Phoebe Petrovic and Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor (D, 4th District), Yanna Lambrinidou, Justin Kinney, Richard Ebright, Klare Allen, Nina Goodale, Steve Goodale, and Bryce Nickels

Click here for a transcript of the Space

Opinion: Protect the public from high-risk pathogen research

by Biosafety Now co-founders Justin B. Kinney and Richard H. Ebright (September 6, 2023)

published in the Wisconsin State Journal on September 6, 2023

Laboratory accidents happen. They happen because scientists are human, and humans make mistakes. 

The overwhelming majority of scientific research is safe, and only a small fraction of laboratory accidents pose risks to the public. Accidents involving potential pandemic pathogens, however, can have catastrophic consequences. Potential pandemic pathogens are viruses and bacteria that, if released, could cause a devastating pandemic.

A bill before the Wisconsin Legislature, SB 401, will protect the public from the hazards of research on potential pandemic pathogens. The bill will do this without having significant costs or adverse impacts. SB 401 is commonsense legislation that deserves broad-based support.

The bill contains two important provisions.

The bill’s first provision will establish public transparency for research on potential pandemic pathogens. Currently, laboratories that study such pathogens are not required to inform state or local governments about where the research is performed, which pathogens they possess, or the potential public health impacts if a pathogen escapes. SB 401 will require these laboratories to provide this information to the state Department of Health Services.

Disclosure of this information is essential. First-responders need this information to help them avoid accidental infection when responding to laboratory emergencies. Healthcare providers need this information to diagnose and prevent the spread of laboratory-acquired infections. This knowledge could make the difference between rapid pathogen containment and an uncontrolled disease outbreak.

The bill’s second provision prohibits “gain of function” research on potential pandemic pathogens, i.e., research that makes these pathogens even more dangerous than they already are.

A recent Wisconsin State Journal column by Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, expressed concerns that this prohibition would hamper biomedical research. These concerns are unfounded. Gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens constitutes less than 0.01% of biomedical research and is not used for developing vaccines or disease treatments.

Based on publicly available information, the bill’s second provision will affect just one laboratory in Wisconsin—a virology laboratory at UW-Madison led by Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka. This provision is important because the Kawaoka laboratory performs gain-of-function research that poses extreme risks to public health. In 2011, the Kawaoka laboratory created genetically engineered avian influenza viruses that can transmit efficiently among mammals. Natural avian influenza viruses kill up to two-thirds of people they infect, but transmit poorly from person to person. If the genetically engineered avian influenza viruses constructed by the Kawaoka laboratory were to escape, they could cause a pandemic far more devastating than COVID-19.

The U.S. federal government has—for decades—failed to enact legislation that protects the public from accidents at laboratories that study and genetically engineer potential pandemic pathogens. Shockingly, federal inaction continues despite U.S. intelligence agencies assessing that the COVID-19 pandemic may have been caused by an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China doing exactly this kind of research.

States must therefore act to protect their residents. By establishing public transparency for high-risk pathogen research, and by prohibiting the highest-risk type of pathogen research, SB 401 will provide urgently needed protections for the residents of Wisconsin.

Comments on Wisconsin Senate Bill 401

by Biosafety Now co-founders Bryce E. Nickels, Justin B. Kinney, Richard H. Ebright (August 16, 2023)

The core mission of Biosafety Now is to help protect the public from the dangers posed by high-risk research on dangerous pathogens. Biosafety Now believes that the public is a crucial stakeholder in high-risk research, and therefore must have a seat at the table in assessing whether the benefits of research projects outweigh risks. If passed, Senate Bill 401 would establish a role for the public in regulating risky research, would provide critical protections for the citizens of Wisconsin, and would advance environmental justice both in the state of Wisconsin and world-wide.

What would the bill do?

The bill prohibits “gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens” in the state of Wisconsin. Gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens is scientific research that makes pathogens (such as viruses) more likely to cause devastating global pandemics. 

Gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens is a very small part (less than 0.01%) of biomedical research.

Gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens is exceedingly risky: one lab accident by a single researcher has the potential to cause a catastrophic epidemic within the local community, which in turn has the potential to seed a devastating world-wide pandemic. 

The bill also includes key transparency provisions that require researchers (1) to disclose the location, scope, purpose, and funding source for research on potentially pandemic pathogens, (2) to describe the impact the pathogen will have on the public if there is an accidental or deliberate release, and (3) to describe the measures the lab will take to ensure the pathogen is not released. In addition, currently, most state and local governments have no information on the pathogens research in their jurisdictions, and thus are unable to prepare, equip, and train first responders to deal with laboratory accidents involving pathogens in their jurisdictions.

Taken together, the provisions of this bill safeguard the citizens of Wisconsin (as well as members of the global community) against an existential threat to their safety and provide members of the public with information about what research is being performed in their communities.

What would the bill NOT do?

The bill would NOT impede the development of vaccines or disease treatments. Gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens plays no role and makes no contribution to the development of vaccines or other disease treatments. 

The bill would NOT harm the biotechnology sector, either in Wisconsin or elsewhere in the US. Indeed, there are no civilian companies in the biotechnology sector that are pursuing this type of research, or that build on the results of this type of research.

The bill would NOT have a substantial negative impact on the University of Wisconsin. The bill would primarily affect the research of only a single virology laboratory run by a single faculty member.

Why Wisconsin?

The University of Wisconsin has a specific virology laboratory engaged in gain of function research on potential pandemic pathogens. This laboratory, run by Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka, is well-known in the research community to be conducting some of the highest-risk gain-of-function research in the entire world. 

As part of its research activities, the Kawaoka Laboratory genetically engineers avian influenza virus and Ebola virus (both of which have a fatality rate of 60-70%) with the expressed purpose of making these viruses more transmissible between humans and thus more likely to cause devastating disease outbreaks.

The Kawaoka Laboratory has a track record of repeated violations of biosafety standards, repeated biosafety accidents, and repeated failures to inform local, state and federal authorities in a timely fashion.


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