Why Aren’t We Talking More About China’s ‘Gain Of Function’ Coronavirus Research?

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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More than a year since its beginning, the true origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is still unknown, but investigations into the matter have uncovered new questions about a scientific practice known as “gain-of-function” research. 

Most of the scientific community still contends that the novel coronavirus wreaking havoc on the world is of natural origin. Others argue gain-of-function (GoF) research may have potentially played a role, though, and critics have warned for years the field was dangerous enough to cause a pandemic. 

The simplest explanation of GoF research is that it is the process of taking a disease and making it more dangerous for some kind of scientific benefit. It can take a variety of forms, but the desired outcome is typically to make a disease more contagious, more deadly or both. (RELATED: These Members Of Congress Have Tested Positive For COVID-19 Since The Capitol Riot)

This is primarily done for one of two reasons: to aid in the development of medical remedies such as vaccines and to explore the potential capabilities of certain biological entities as weapons. The National Institutes of Health identify GoF research as a dual-use technology. Nuclear weapons and energy, artificial intelligence, and rocket technologies are just some of the other areas of research which share that categorization

There are clear benevolent motivations for GoF research. Exploring the ways viruses can do more damage to humans, how they interact with certain organisms or environments and developing medical solutions against the strongest possible threats are all plausible justifications for GoF work that could help scientists better combat dangerous pandemics.

The risks are evident too, though, and many researchers have expressed concern about the field as a result. Not only is the development of disease for potential use as a weapon ethically questionable and potentially dangerous, but accidents can happen too. Human error will always be present in any endeavor, and numerous dangerous pathogens have been accidentally released from a lab setting throughout history. 

Even with the precise origins of the COVID-19 pandemic still unclear, there are known connections between GoF research and the coronavirus. It’s well established that the NIH, under the direction of Dr. Anthony Fauci, has been funding GoF research via grants for years. Among the researchers who have gotten a piece of that U.S. taxpayer pie are the ones at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). 

The WIV is home to China’s only biosafety level 4 laboratory. It’s also roughly 20 miles from the Huanan seafood wet market in Wuhan, thought to be the first “super-spreader” location of the pandemic. The WIV has long done research on coronaviruses, specifically coming from bats. China’s famous “bat-woman,” Dr. Shi Zhengli, conducts her work at the WIV. 

An example of the GoF work done at the WIV can be found in 2015, when researchers engineered a hybrid version of bat coronavirus and SARS that could infect humans. At the time, critics wondered whether or not the scientific benefits of learning more about the ways bat coronavirus could evolve were worth the risk of engineering a new, dangerous pathogen. 

There is some, at the very least circumstantial, evidence that GoF research performed at the WIV may be connected to the novel coronavirus now responsible for killing millions across the world. Nicholson Baker’s New York Magazine report thrust the lab-leak hypothesis into the spotlight, but some researchers have been warning for months that COVID-19 may be the product of GoF work that escaped from a lab. 

Karl and Dan Sirotkin had a paper published in Aug. 2020 titled “Might SARS‐CoV‐2 Have Arisen via Serial Passage through an Animal Host or Cell Culture.” The peer-reviewed paper breaks down a laundry list of data points that plausibly suggest the virus may have been a man-made result of serial passage GoF research. 

In layman’s terms, serial passage is a form of GoF research in which a virus is passed repeatedly through hosts or environments so it can rapidly adapt to them and be studied. For example, in 2012, a team led by Ron Fouchier published a study on the H5N1 influenza strain that used serial passage to prove the strain could become transmissible through the air without intermingling with different host species or flu strains. (RELATED: H1N1 Response VS COVID-19 Response, Why So Different? We Asked Rep. Roger Marshall, M.D.)

To do so, Fouchier’s team took the non-transmissible influenza virus, infected a ferret with it, let it grow, then took it from that ferret to a second ferret, and repeated until it mutated and became contagious. The Sirotkins have documented numerous data points that suggest a similar process may have been involved in the origin of COVID-19 as part of the collaborative D.R.A.S.T.I.C. project

COVID-19 has proven highly contagious and dangerous in minks, requiring millions to be slaughtered throughout Europe to prevent mass outbreaks at farms. The Sirotkins say the virus is significantly more adapted to both minks and humans than bats, suggesting “that either lab engineering or an intermediate host animal was required,” Dan says. Karl adds that even with COVID-19 coming originally from bats, as the scientific consensus asserts, “it could not have jumped directly from them [to humans].”

Many scientists have suggested COVID-19 is overwhelmingly likely to have originated naturally because it is 96% similar to another naturally-occurring coronavirus, RaTG13. The issue, the Sirotkins tell the Daily Caller, is that the missing 4% includes the key features that make COVID-19 so adapted to humans.

COVID-19 is highly transmissible between humans largely due to the presence of “furin cleavage sites.” These FCS are missing from RaTG13, the Sirotkins say, and the closest-matching naturally-occurring coronavirus to COVID-19 that does have FCS is only 60% similar. 

“When you look at bat coronaviruses, those with FCSes are very dissimilar to COVID-19,” Karl told the Daily Caller in an email. Dan adds, “Raw genetic distance alone doesn’t mean all that much, humans are even closer than that to chimps at about 98% similarity [but] we’re clearly very different species. 

Research like this indicates that the question of whether COVID-19 came from serial passage or some other form of GoF work merits some examination. However, it has been dismissed as a conspiracy theory by media outlets and some scientists. 

Outlets like Reuters, Scientific American and Business Insider all called the idea of lab-origin a “conspiracy theory.” Other sites like the BBC and ABC have conflated the theory that COVID-19 came from a lab with the separate claim that it was intentionally released as a bioweapon, which isn’t supported by any evidence. 

Prior to the pandemic, though, the scientific community warned that something like this could happen as the result of a lab-leak. That was one of the key revelations of Baker’s New York Mag report: scientists warned there was a high chance a pandemic could accidentally be spawned from a lab accident as far back as 2012, and hundreds of dangerous lab accidents dealing with disease study happen every year in the United States alone. 

Debate has raged on for years as researchers argued whether or not the medical and defense benefits of GoF research were worth the risk. A Jan. 2020 article in Nature highlights calls from some experts for the U.S. government to be more transparent with what kinds of GoF research it funds through grants. 

“We’re not trying to say the policy is wrong, we’re trying to say the policy is ambiguous,” said Harvard School of Public Health Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch. He said governments shouldn’t fund certain kinds of GoF work, including the aforementioned 2012 Fouchier study. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins, also urged authorities to “reconsider the need for such work.”

The NIH did heed those kinds of warnings in 2014, when they instituted a ban on the funding of GoF research dealing with influenza, SARS, and MERS. The ban was subsequently lifted in 2017, a move Discovery called “controversial.” (RELATED: Japan Discovers New Strain Of COVID-19)

Even those who entirely dismissed any possibility of a lab-leak causing COVID-19, such as Kelsey Piper of Vox, argued we should stop GoF research entirely. “Allowing gain-of-function research means running unacceptable risks with millions of lives. It’s high time to rethink that,” she wrote in May 2020. 

Piper cites a 2014 case in which as many as 75 individuals were accidentally exposed to anthrax due to a laboratory failure. Dan Sirotkin cited several such cases to the Caller that actually resulted in dangerous outbreaks, including a 2007 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the U.K., and a 1978 smallpox leak from a British medical school. 

Many of the press outlets that dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis did so based on a letter in The Lancet from a group of scientists who sought to “condemn conspiracy theories” about the origin of the virus. The letter was organized by Peter Daszak, who was directly involved in securing NIH funding for the WIV, according to Baker’s New York Mag report. 

Many other examples exist of media outlets citing scientists with direct financial or professional interest in the preservation of GoF research. The University of North Carolina’s Dr. Ralph Baric is frequently cited as an expert on coronavirus-related questions. He is a pioneer in the field, having developed a seamless method for cloning a SARS virus with no trace of human intervention, according to Baker. He has reportedly worked directly with the researchers at the WIV in recent years. 

Gain-of-function research is a big business. The Wuhan lab alone received millions of dollars in NIH funding starting in 2014, according to the Washington Times. With funding already halted once before, increased scrutiny on the practice as a result of COVID-19 could jeopardize further research. 

Baker’s New York Magazine piece caused many onlookers to reexamine the possibility of the lab-leak theory. The Washington Post published an editorial shortly after Baker’s piece was published, saying “the possibility of a laboratory accident or inadvertent leak having caused the coronavirus outbreak must not be ignored.” 

Other scientists have weighed in to say that a lab-leak cannot be ruled out, and new papers have emerged raising doubts about the origin of the pandemic. The World Health Organization will finally have investigators on the ground in China on Jan. 14, more than a year after the initial outbreak of COVID-19. Answers may be delivered from that investigation, but enough time has passed that it also may be impossible to ever truly know where COVID-19 came from. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: White House, Senators Pan WHO Investigation Into Chinese Origins Of COVID-19)

GoF research is considered dangerous and controversial by many in the scientific community. Even if it is not responsible for COVID-19, the risks associated with that research combined with the increasingly adversarial relationship between the United States and China raise questions not currently in the mainstream of political debate. 

Under the direction of Anthony Fauci, the NIH paused, then unpaused funding of this research, including to the Wuhan lab now at the center of the pandemic. Time will tell if more change is afoot after a year marked by millions of deaths and untold economic disasters.