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

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This shock revelation by DRASTIC was compounded by the discovery that EcoHealth proposed surgically precise modifications that would push these viral chimeras even further down the road towards what must bluntly be called a coronavirus admirably suited to infecting humans.

Bear in mind the proposal was written in 2018, 18 months before the COVID pandemic with its epicentre in Wuhan.

Fortunately, the proposal was rejected by DARPA, the US defence agency, on the grounds that it constituted GoF. What we do not know - and badly need to know - is whether this proposal was submitted elsewhere, financed and performed. Knowing how researchers think and plan ahead, it is possible some of this disturbing work has already been performed.

Throw into this already corrosive mix clear evidence of conflicts of interest, obfuscation and covert lobbying by some of these scientists and their supporters – all played out in top scientific journals - and you have a toxic brew. We have witnessed harsh criticism of any voice contemplating a lab leak - a disgrace that has no part in scientific debate.

What can be done?

Given the extraordinary dangers inherent in GoF virology, and the erroneous yet pervading myth that pandemics can be predicted, we first need an immediate moratorium on conducting and funding gain-of-function research until international and legally binding standards are set. It would need to cover the thorny mission of verification which could entail onsite inspections.

Eine berufliche Tätigkeit, die auch Mut erfordert: Eine Wissenschaftlerin hantiert im Hochsicherheitslabor mit vom Coronavirus infizierten Zellkulturen.
Eine berufliche Tätigkeit, die auch Mut erfordert: Eine Wissenschaftlerin hantiert im Hochsicherheitslabor mit vom Coronavirus infizierten Zellkulturen. : Bild: dpa

There is precedent. The International Atomic Energy Authority sends inspectors visiting nuclear installations around the globe. One big difference is that there are far more virology labs around the globe. The good news is that GoF research represents less than 0.001% of the virology performed today.

The Biological Weapons Convention was set up in 1972 and is headquartered in Geneva. Violations occurred immediately. Without the power of inspection and a small secretariat it doesn’t have much bite. By contrast, the Chemical Weapons Convention established in 1997 does have bite. It is administered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, which has 500 staff, a proper budget and is empowered to conduct inspections.

Germany has a reputation for consensus building and could drive international support leading to an agreement regulating GoF as a precursor to an international treaty. A trio of countries that share concerns over GoF research, such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan would be enough to get things going.

It terrifies me just to think that the COVID pandemic could have been man-made. For the moment there is no consensus as to the origins of the virus. But with the vertiginous technological firepower that virologists now wield, unchecked gain-of-function research will, one day, result in a pandemic carrying the genetic bar code “Made in the Lab”.

Let’s not end on a negative note. The power of biomedical research in tackling COVID19 – the rapid delivery of effective vaccines and powerful diagnostics in under one year – shows that good virology vastly outweighs the marginal GoF research. We see virology played out every day under white tents on street corners where nasal swabs are taken and results delivered in 15 minutes. It’s stunning, it’s breathtaking.

It’s what we do. Pasteur and Koch would agree - they shot the arrow..Z.

The Author

Simon Wain-Hobson is

Emeritus Professor, Institut Pasteur, Paris, Chair, Foundation for Vaccine Research, Washington DC

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