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NASA calls for “immediate action” to combat pathogens in space

“Human exploration of the solar system and beyond continues, and with that exploration comes increasing biological risk,” say the commission’s authors in their May 2024 National Biodefense Plan.

“Probe or human beings visiting extraterrestrial environments must not introduce organisms from Earth into those environments. Conversely, they must also ensure that they do not bring back alien or mutated microbes from Earth that could pose a threat to the health of humans, animals, plants or ecosystems on Earth or on the Moon.”

And it is not just the import and export of pathogens between worlds that worries the Commission. “Spaceflights sometimes reactivate viruses (e.g. herpes, Epstein-Barr, varicella zoster, cytomegalovirus) and increase viral shedding in astronauts. Human infection in a space-like environment could pose a significant threat to everyone on board,” the statement said.

“In addition, space travel significantly weakens astronauts’ immune systems and makes them more susceptible to earthly and extraterrestrial diseases.”

The goal of astro-biodefense is to identify, characterize, and address biological threats that arise at the interface between space exploration and infectious disease. The report calls on NASA and the U.S. government to “act now to address these threats before they occur.”

Heavenly Contamination Labs

Specifically, NASA is called upon to establish a Planetary Biodefense Board with a direct line to the White House and to empower the NASA Office of Planetary Protection to monitor and regulate the movement of pathogens in space.

“We need to start developing the necessary technologies and containment protocols in advance so that when the pests return, we can be confident they will not enter the environment,” said JT O'Brien, the commission's lead researcher and public health expert. The Telegraph.

“We need to make sure these things are in place before we start tackling this next frontier.”

NASA already ensures that potentially harmful microbes are not transported between Earth and other celestial bodies through a variety of mechanisms, including decontaminating spacecraft and testing equipment and samples, but the report says it “can and should do more.”

One recommendation is for NASA to adapt its contamination labs to handle potentially high-risk celestial samples, as it eventually expects to import the first samples from Mars in 2033.

But currently, even top-notch BSL-4 laboratories are not considered safe enough to handle sensitive samples from space, according to a study published in 2012 by the European Space Agency.