Is gain-of-function research right?
- Microbiologist Vincent Racaniello explains that gain-of-function research 'gives an organism a new property or enhances an existing one. The organism can be a virus, bacterium, fungus, rodent, bird, fish or anything that can be experimentally manipulated.'
- Dr. Tom Inglesby of the UPMC Center for Health Security believes that the term 'gain-of-function research' originated at a 2012 meeting with the National Institutes of Health, wherein it 'was used to replace more descriptive terms that indicated concerns about research that generates strains of respiratory viruses that are highly transmissible and highly pathogenic.'
- US Senator Rand Paul questioned Dr. Anthony Fauci in 2021 about grant money given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. According to FactCheck.org, 'At issue is whether the National Institutes of Health funded research on bat coronaviruses that could have caused a pathogen to become more infectious to humans and, separately, if SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes the disease COVID-19 — transferred naturally from bats to humans, possibly through an intermediate host animal, or if a virus, a naturally occurring one or a lab-enhanced one, was accidentally released from the Wuhan lab.'
- A 2021 Hill-HarrisX poll found that 67% of registered voters 'would rather medical research continue to work with viruses in an attempt to find cures even if they might create more deadly mutations.'
Despite the risks involved, it is evident that gain-of-function experiments are effective at helping researchers test scientific theories and find treatments for infectious diseases. Such research is also usually conducted at the highest levels, with skilled individuals and high-quality facilities that can help ensure the experiments are conducted safely.
It should also be noted that viruses are already constantly mutating on their own, effectively doing gain-of-function experiments at a rate that scientists could never match. Therefore, allowing researchers to perform gain-of-function experiments would help us better understand the evolving pathogenic landscape and be better prepared for pandemic response.
As experts point out, 'in most cases, there are no alternative approaches' that would provide evidence that is just as strong as what can be obtained from gain-of-function experiments. Bioinformatics and modeling approaches, for instance, may be used to identify associations between certain genotypic traits but will rarely prove causality. Therefore, although other modes of research may be useful, virologists would 'be deprived of a powerful tool of human inquiry' if they were unable to perform gain-of-function experiments.
Most arguments against gain-of-function research point out that such experiments can pose immense safety and security concerns. After all, there have been some incidents of pathogens escaping labs in the past, and most experts would agree that it would be unacceptable to proceed with research that could put millions of lives at risk. However, the solution to circumvent these risks shouldn't be to ban gain-of-function research altogether but to ensure we have stringent procedures in place to perform such experiments at an acceptable level of safety and security.
The fact that US citizens could have effectively funded their own pandemic is incredibly unfortunate. Sadder still is the fact that people continue to support gain-of-function research. It is possible that gain-of-function research can result in new vaccines and treatments, but it can also potentially cause the outbreak of viruses that threaten the entire planet. While the COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis is still developing, no one can deny the possibility that viruses can escape from laboratories and infect the population.
If private pharmaceutical companies wish to engage in dangerous gain-of-function research, then perhaps there is nothing we can do to stop them. But asking American taxpayers to fund these experiments with their hard-earned money makes no sense financially and is not in the taxpayer’s best interests. The money could be better spent on other, more important endeavors, like ending child poverty in the United States, addressing obesity, or solving the housing crisis.
In the end, there is a clear conflict of interest between government interests and big pharma’s influence. We have to ask ourselves whether we are genuinely trying to protect citizens with these experiments or whether we’re simply trying to help big pharma rake in even more profit. Surely, the COVID pandemic timeline begs one to question just how a COVID vaccine patent could have been filed only weeks after the contagion publicly emerged.
Finally, medical technology develops at a fast pace. By the time we actually gain any usable data from these gain-of-function experiments, new innovations may make these discoveries insignificant.
The risks of gain-of-function research simply outweigh the perceived potential rewards.