Analysis

Are The Benefits Of Dangerous Gain-Of-Function Research Really Worth The Risks?

(Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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A type of scientific experimentation known as “gain-of-function” (GOF) research has long been discouraged due to its risks, and the promised upsides don’t appear to be coming to fruition.

GOF research, in the medical context, involves making pathogens more deadly, more transmissible, or both, and is carried out with the aim of better preparing the world for viral outbreaks and aiding in the development of vaccines and other remedies. Since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, some have posited that the deadly virus may be a result of GOF research that escaped from a lab, since the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) located just miles from the epicenter of the pandemic has conducted GOF research on bats in the past.

The debate over the value of GOF research is not new. A ban was put in place by the National Institutes of Health on funding such research in 2014, only to later be lifted in 2017. The Biden administration has thus far given no indication that it plans to reinstate that ban. (RELATED: FLASHBACK: NIH Funded Wuhan Lab Engaged In Dangerous Research Previously Banned In US)

The ban was implemented primarily because of the safety concerns surrounding GOF research. Lab accidents are somewhat common in the United States, and deadly pathogens have escaped from controlled environments before. Some scientists warned that with the amount of GOF research happening in the world, and the propensity for labs to have containment breakdowns, a pandemic being caused by such an accident was actually incredibly likely.

Allowing GOF research to continue would presumably necessitate that substantial gains are being made as a result. Scientists don’t all believe that’s the case, though. The Cambridge Working Group, made up of American scientific experts, declared itself opposed to GOF research not only due to the dangers, but because it hasn’t yielded much in the way of medical breakthroughs, Tablet Mag reported.

Co-founder and Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said in 2017 that the research has only given us “modest scientific knowledge” and has done “almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics, and yet risked creating an accidental pandemic.”

Director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins, Thomas Inglesby, concurred. “I haven’t seen any of the vaccine companies say that they need to do this work in order to make vaccines. I have not seen evidence that the information people are pursuing could be put into widespread use in the field,” he told Vox.

Still, some advocates defend GOF research. Researchers like Dr. Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organization team investigating the origin of COVID-19, and Dr. Ralph Baric, have argued that GOF research produces substantial scientific discoveries, and they say that coronavirus isn’t a results of it. (RELATED: Can The WHO’s COVID-19 Investigation Be Trusted? Some Experts Say No)

Daszak and Baric have significant financial interests tied to GOF research. So do dozens of other researchers, like Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, who lead groups that “artificially engineered potentially pandemic forms” of a flu variant, H5N1, according to Nature.

For many, the potential rewards just aren’t worth the risks. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of a situation that GOF research should theoretically help the medical community prepare for. And yet, it isn’t clear as of now that that research has meaningfully contributed in any way to the various available vaccines or remedies for the virus.

“The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk,” argues Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University.