Biosecurity Is the Lesson We Need to Learn from the Coronavirus Pandemic


May 11, 2020

Laboratory worker working under a laboratory exhaust hood, photo by Marc Dufresne/Getty Images

Photo by Marc Dufresne/Getty Images

By Daniel M. Gerstein and James Giordano

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on May 11, 2020.

There is no scientific evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 was bioengineered. However, that does not mean that humans do not bear some responsibility for this pandemic. Human activities such as disrupting environmental habitats, promoting the mixing of species in venues such as the wet market in Wuhan, and experimenting with pathogens in laboratories all present windows of vulnerability.

To address this, America needs to have a new approach to biosafety and biosecurity that addresses the full range of biological threats that humankind and the global environment will face in the future.

Biological outbreaks have been a fear among experts for decades. The ever-increasing encroachment upon natural habitats has resulted in zoonotic disease spillover to humans. Recent examples include Rift Valley Fever, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), pandemic influenza H1N1 2009, yellow fever, Avian Influenza (H5N1), Avian Influenza (H7N9), Ebola, West Nile virus, the Zika virus and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). In fact, thirty new human pathogens have been detected in the last three decades, 75 percent of which have originated in animals. The latest, of course, is the SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

The viruses and related diseases are not necessarily new but the spillover to humans appears to be occurring with increasing frequency. These viruses are unfamiliar to human immune systems and therein lies the problem. In some instances, a new virus can be completely harmless, while in others it can be devastating. When further propagated by global supply chains, what previously might have been isolated pockets of disease turn into global concerns—and in the case of COVID-19, a global pandemic.

The difference in severity is often because of small variances in the viral genomes. Consider, for example, the three coronavirus outbreaks—SARS, MERS and COVID-19.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Daniel M. Gerstein is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He formerly served as the undersecretary (acting) and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011 to 2014. James Giordano is a professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry, and a senior scholar of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center. He formerly served on the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary's Advisory Committee for Human Research Protections.