Virology : Dangerous gain of function research has gotten out of hand and needs to be reined in

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Partikel des Coronavirus in einer elektronenmikroskopischen Aufnahme
Partikel des Coronavirus in einer elektronenmikroskopischen Aufnahme : Bild: dpa

The virologists doing this work said it would help them predict the next pandemic virus. Armed with this insight, they claimed it would be possible to develop preventive vaccines and drugs that could be frozen and stored. At the spectre of a novel pandemic they would be deployed en masse thereby nipping any pandemic in the bud.

It’s a very attractive story that convinced some leading agencies that fund biomedical research. Sadly, it’s a pipedream. For a whole host of reasons involving arcane aspects of virology, predicting the next pandemic virus or strain is Mission Impossible ( also here)

As if this wasn’t enough, our track record in pandemic prediction is zero. Nobody predicted COVID-19. Nobody predicted the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. We can’t even predict what is going to happen to flu this winter. Which of the four seasonal flu viruses circulating before the COVID pandemic will come charging back? Virologists in the know all agree that it will be a nasty flu season. No more. With this in mind, you better get your flu jab before December.

Back to man-made viruses. This work has gone by the name of Gain-of-Function research, or simply GoF, because an animal virus is engineered to gain a new function. The ‘gain’ is the frightening ability to transmit efficiently between humans.

If it is impossible to predict the next pandemic, then the idea of producing preventive vaccines and drugs goes out of the window. In short, there are no benefits from GoF virology. We’re we are left with a very small, but finite risk of a lab accident or leak that could have catastrophic consequences for the world.

Weighing up the risks and benefits of such work should be a no brainer. It was for me and many others who don’t believe in making the world a more dangerous place.

Surely GoF virology has been discussed widely? There were both closed-door meetings but and only a few open discussions starting in 2012 after Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier claimed that he had created “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”

Germany stands out for two reasons. The Deutsche Ethikrat report published in May 2014 discussed the wider ramifications of GoF virology. There is nothing better, anywhere. Then in December 2014 the Volkswagen Stiftung organized an open meeting in Hannover. It covered the vast panorama of human concerns triggered by the genesis of man-made viruses. There’s been no better meeting.

By some estimates, COVID-19 virus has already caused 15 million dead. It has upturned our lives, slammed the global economy and brutally reminded us of our vulnerability to microbes.

It has also reactivated the decade long festering GoF controversy which has roared back into life.

A month ago, a determined group of data analysts, researchers and online detectives going by the colourful name of DRASTIC ferreted out a copy of a March 2018 grant proposal by EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organisation.

As part of a $14.2 million proposal, EcoHealth described a program to be conducted in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and labs in the US and Singapore, to perform GoF research by cutting and pasting different parts of bat coronavirus genomes to create chimeras never seen before. All hell broke loose.

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