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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Bill threatens UW research on infectious diseases, experts say

UW experts face growing concern about Wisconsin legislature banning gain-of-function research on infectious diseases
Bennett Waara

Wisconsin State Legislature’s 2023 Assembly Bill 413 proposes the prohibition of gain of function research on potential pandemic pathogens at higher education institutions. AB413 defines GOF research as any virus, fungus, bacteria, eukaryotic parasite or any virus variant that is likely, moderately or highly transmissible to human populations and poses a severe threat to public health and safety.

According to the National Library of Medicine, GOF research refers to the alteration of genotypes or research outcomes that increase the transmissibility or virulence of pathogens. The research is used to understand the disease-causing agents, their interaction with humans and their potential to cause pandemics.

The University of Wisconsin released a statement Jan. 10 opposing AB413, which poses a threat to research and scientific innovation in Wisconsin. In the statement, UW defends its reputation as a powerhouse of federally funded research with an extensive portfolio of biological and biochemical research, especially for the dairy and agriculture industry.


UW researcher and professor Peter Halfmann works in the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Influenza Research Institute. Halfmann started his research with the Ebola virus, then transitioned to influenza and currently primarily works with SARS-CoV-2. According to Halfmann, the open-ended drafted AB413 and its limitation on research at UW is concerning.

Working with pathogens requires strict procedures and biosafety standards to help prevent any risks of accidents to the workers, community and environment, according to the UW Pathogen Research Department

Laboratory facilities are rated in four different biosafety levels depending on their procedure and infrastructure — BSL-1 is labeled as low-risk for humans and the environment, BSL-2 as moderate risk, and BSL-3 and BSL-4 as high risk, with potential to cause disease in humans.

According to the UW Pathogen Research Department, UW laboratory facilities conduct pathogen research at BSL-2 and a small number at BSL-3, with no BSL-4 laboratories.

“All of this [GOF] research is regulated at the institutional level at UW and other UW campuses and on the federal level,” Halfmann said. “Grants that could potentially have a GOF research in them are reviewed by the [Influenza Research] Institute and by the federal government, which is the first safety measure already in place.”

According to Halfmann, the Influenza Research Institute operates experiments under a BSL-3 enhanced, facilitated laboratory with a couple of biosafety levels above a usual BSL-3 lab. Research in the institute uses air-purifying respirators with HEPA filters that remove pathogens from the air. The lab has airtight concrete walls and negative pressure, ensuring nothing escapes the lab.

The wastewater system is decontaminated by heating it to 250°F, which kills anything in the wastewater — other waste products are all autoclaved, a technique used to sterilize instruments or any other substances by heating them above their boiling point.

Lab researchers shower when leaving the lab and use all the essential equipment with HEPA air filters. As a precaution, the laboratory facilities have their own generator in the case of a city power outage, Halfmann said.

“We do research here, but none of our research that we’re currently doing is gain-of-function,” Halfmann said.

The final bill proposed by the Wisconsin Legislature would limit not just biomedical research but other biological research projects, restricting the ability of public authorities to respond to potential threats like emerging diseases or contagious viruses.

According to former UW pharmacology professor William Mellon, this legislation would present issues trying to solve the Wisconsin community’s public health needs on time and inhibit future funding from federal grants to support vital biological and biomedical research projects.

Mellon said the language used in the bill is ambiguous. Additional oversight from the proposed bill could hinder Wisconsin research if a pandemic virus arises — delaying the research required to study time-sensitive viral events.

GOF research is not new, and it happens in microbiology often. While the bill is generally written for the state, it is certainly directed at the UW campus, Mellon said.

“When the state becomes restrictive, it only hurts the population of the state in the long run,”  Mellon said. “Working with our faculty, as I did for so many years … I think the dedication of these people [virology researchers] is quite incredible.”

Halfmann is concerned if the bill gets passed, many researchers will leave UW. It could also make recruiting new researchers to UW and other labs around the state more difficult and even promote unjust scrutiny of biological research performed on campus.

There’s a lot of disinformation spread on social media platforms, which fuels public distrust in research and misinforms people about the importance of GOF research. Halfmann said the public needs to process information critically, and to verify sources and fact-check information online.

Halfmann said he worries that when news related to AB413 comes out to the general public, they will think GOF research is the only lab procedure done at UW. Yet, the university has a robust community of researchers working to answer questions for the community and beyond.

AB413’s open-ended language and redundancy can limit important research at UW and other Wisconsin universities — making GOF research more inaccessible to researchers and the path to preventing and mitigating future pandemics increasingly difficult, Halfmann said.

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