SARS-CoV-2 virus particles seen in an electron micrograph.
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell infected with a variant strain of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (green), isolated from a patient sample. Wisconsin Republicans have proposed banning a certain type of research on dangerous pathogens. NIAID/NIH
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Republicans have proposed banning a certain type of research on dangerous pathogens. Here’s what to know about the bill.

What is the proposal?

The bill specifically bans higher education institutions in Wisconsin from conducting “gain-of-function research” on “potentially pandemic pathogens” and requires any research on the pathogens to be reported to the Department of Health Services. Both terms have varying definitions and under the bill’s language, potentially life-saving research on diseases like the common cold could be affected.

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Why should the public care?

Some public health advocates are encouraging the public not to disregard the bills simply because they are being promoted by Republicans who rejected public health protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Biosafety and biosecurity, safety of the workforce, safety of the public, is nothing but bipartisan,” said Dr. Gerald Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University. “I think local and state communities should take an interest, as you’re doing in Wisconsin, and it just needs to have a rational discussion.”

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Health and no public hearing has been called, but people who are interested can contact their representatives.

What is gain-of-function research?

Gain-of-function research involves giving an organism, such as a virus, more biological characteristics. The vast majority is safe and uncontroversial. However, a tiny fraction of that research, sometimes called “gain-of-function research of concern,” which is done on potential pandemic pathogens, involves making the most dangerous organisms more virulent or transmissible.

The Republican bill as drafted does not explicitly limit the ban to “gain-of-function research of concern,” and the definition of “potential pandemic pathogens” is much more broad than one proposed by experts, but the lead author is open to amendments.

What do proponents and critics say?

UW-Madison opposes the current bill because of concerns it will block research critical to curing and preventing disease. One lab at UW-Madison has conducted in the past gain-of-function research on some of the most risky pathogens, which has stirred international controversy.

Biosafety experts are encouraging more transparency and sharing of disease research with public officials to better protect the public in case of an outbreak.

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Phoebe Petrovic is an investigative reporter covering disinformation at Wisconsin Watch and a 2022-2023 Law & Justice Journalism Project fellow. As a Report for America corps member from 2019-2022, Petrovic reported, produced, and hosted "Open and Shut," a podcast series co-published with Wisconsin Public Radio examining the power of prosecutors. Petrovic previously worked at WPR as a Lee Ester News Fellow, “Reveal” from the Center for Investigative Reporting as an editorial intern and NPR's "Here & Now" as a temporary producer. Her work has aired nationally on all of NPR's flagship news magazines. She holds a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Yale University.