In our 2022 year-end report, we briefly discussed an ethical issue directly associated with the recent pandemic, namely Gain of Function (GOF) research. It is vital that we possess understanding of GOF origins and significance.
GOF research had been quietly pursued internationally for decades before it was officially named and given public attention. In 2011, 2 groups of scientists (funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH)) genetically engineered an avian influenza virus (H5N1), making it more infectious, and therefore deadlier. H5N1 was previously deadly, but wasn’t capable of airborne transmission, thus dramatically limiting its ability to spread. It was thought probable that the unmodified virus could naturally mutate in this direction given extended time. Believing they were preparing to understand and combat an inevitable pandemic, a deadly new version of H5N1 was intentionally engineered so it could be studied. Thus, the term “gain of function” was birthed to describe a fabricated increase in transmissibility and deadliness of a virus.
In 2012, this research was submitted to the journals Science and Nature for publication and was accepted. In response, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity advised the NIH to block the research from being published. Domestic and international uproar followed, centered around potentially unintentional consequences, including the accidental release of the engineered virus into the public, and the potential for its weaponization once the “recipe” was published. Supporters of GOF research argued that these deadly viruses must be created in order to manufacture vaccines to counter them if and when they occur naturally. Several hundred international scientists called for a moratorium on all GOF research involving highly pathogenic viruses that could lead to increased transmissibility. Despite concerns, months later the research was indeed published without retractions. In October 2014, the White House announced the initiation of a deliberative process, along with a pause on federal funding for GOF research. This specifically included influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses. In December 2014, the Federal National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine finally held a public symposium on potential US government policies for the oversight of GOF research, and In March 2016, a second symposium was held, resulting in the lifting of the funding moratorium in 2017, and the formation of the Health and Human Services (HHS) Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight review system to approve all future funding.
While government-bioresearch consensus and regulation are imperative, the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly in execution, partly due to the number of oversight committees involved. During the brief withdrawal of funding, GOF research utilizing SARS virus was moved offshore to several locations, including Wuhan, China. The consensus among GOF critics includes the reality that GOF research has never averted nor prepared society for a pandemic, but in contrast carries the risk of causing one if it hasn’t already. NCER agrees, believing that the unknown benefits of such research do not outweigh the potential risks to society. Is this a rational pursuit when natural evolution can be quite dissimilar to laboratory engineered strains that may never occur in nature? Does GOF research protect humankind or actually put it at risk?
Please read more to broaden your understanding at the following links –