GOP bill would ban research at state universities that increases pathogen transmissibility

A new GOP bill would ban research at Wisconsin colleges and universities that makes pathogens more dangerous or likely to spread, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. Republican state legislators have pointed to incidents and controversy involving UW–Madison’s  bird flu studies as justification for the measure.

The bill — authored by state Rep. Elijah Behnke, state Rep. Ty Bodden, and state Sen. André Jacque and being circulated for co-sponsors through Thursday — specifically bans higher education institutions from conducting “gain-of-function” studies, which increase the transmissibility of viruses or other pathogens in an effort to observe and prepare for occurrences in nature. The bill would also require scientists to notify the state Department of Health Services before conducting research on any “potentially pandemic pathogen.” 

UW–Madison virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka has faced criticism for work making flu viruses more infectious in ferrets; the work was halted by federal authorities in recent years over concerns that a lab leak could cause a human flu pandemic. 

Lawmakers have also cited a 2009 case in which UW–Madison researchers broke federal rules by creating a drug-resistant strain of bacteria, for which the university was fined $40,000 and the lead scientist banned from lab work for five years.