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Pandemic Origins: Technologies, Challenges, and Policy Options to Support Investigations

GAO-23-106562 Published: Feb 01, 2023. Publicly Released: Feb 01, 2023.
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Fast Facts

We testified that understanding pandemic origins can help policymakers craft responses to prevent future events. This could help reduce the high health and economic costs associated with pandemics.

Genetic analysis and other technologies can help researchers detect a pandemic's origin. Investigations into the origins of diseases can be slow, but the technologies aren't the problem. For example, delays can result when investigators can't access biological samples, or if there aren't enough trained investigators.

Our recent work identified 5 policy options to address these issues, such as expanding the pandemic origin investigator workforce.

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What GAO Found

Determining the likely origin of pandemics is challenging. Researchers may use several technologies to investigate a pandemic's origin. For example, researchers use technologies such as genomic sequencing, bioinformatics analysis, and genetic databases to generate, analyze, and compare a pathogen's genetic makeup against that of other pathogens. A key limitation of these technologies is that some laboratory-based genetic modifications may be indistinguishable from natural variations. Access to samples is critical for conducting genetic sequence analysis, which allows researchers to generate and analyze the data needed to support the likely origin of a pandemic.

Researchers also use technologies such as serology (i.e., blood analysis) and epidemiological surveillance—tracking a disease as it moves through a population—to monitor pathogen infection and disease occurrence in human and animal populations. The resulting data can support pandemic origin investigations. However, for these technologies to be effective in determining a pandemic's likely origin, investigators need access to samples and data from infected or exposed individuals from early in an outbreak to reliably trace the disease back to the first human infection(s). Further, researchers may conduct laboratory-based pathogen studies to generate data to support known natural patterns or unusual patterns of spread indicative of a possible laboratory-related origin. However, some pathogens cannot be easily cultured in a laboratory setting, and some pathogens may require enhanced biosafety-level facilities.

However, experts told GAO that technologies are not the limiting factor for determining the likely origin of a pandemic. GAO identified three cross-cutting challenges that hinder pandemic origin investigations. These include a lack of sufficient access to samples and genetic sequence data; a lack of standardized processes for submitting, accessing, and using genetic sequence data stored in databases around the world; and a lack of a sufficient and skilled interdisciplinary workforce.

GAO identified five policy options that may help address the cross-cutting challenges, including proactively establishing multilateral agreements for accessing and sharing samples and genetic sequence data, taking steps to grow an interdisciplinary workforce, and developing a national strategy targeted to pandemic origin investigations. These policy options represent possible actions that policymakers—who may include Congress, federal agencies, state and local governments, academia, industry, and international organizations—could consider taking.

Why GAO Did This Study

Pandemics are global disease outbreaks that can greatly increase morbidity and mortality and cause significant economic and social disruptions. According to the scientific literature, most pandemics where the origin is known were caused by the natural transmission of a virus through animal-to-human contact; however, there is potential for a pandemic to originate from laboratory research.

GAO was asked to conduct a technology assessment on pandemic origins. This testimony summarizes our January 2023 technology assessment entitled Pandemic Origins: Technologies and Challenges for Biological Investigations and describes: (1) key technologies available for pandemic origin investigations, (2) strengths and limitations of these tools and how researchers use them to investigate pandemic origins, and (3) cross-cutting challenges researchers face in trying to determine a pandemic's origin.

GAO reviewed peer-reviewed scientific literature and other documents, including reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, World Health Organization, and select national laboratories; interviewed government, industry, and academic representatives; and convened a meeting of 27 experts in March 2022 with assistance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

For more information, contact Karen L. Howard at (202) 512-6888 or

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Disease controlGeneticsHealth careInfectious diseasespandemicsPathogensPublic healthPublic health emergenciesLabor forceTechnology assessment