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

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Virology lab at the «National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). Bild: dpa

With its reputation for consensus building, Germany could help drive the effort leading to an international agreement regulating gain-of-function research.

          6 Min.

          The germ theory of disease took hold towards the end of the 19th century. Men like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch devoted their lives to identifying infectious agents. Soon the distinction between bacteria and viruses emerged. Vaccines quickly came to the fore followed by the first drugs to treat syphilis.

          In parallel tough public health measures, including chlorinated water, waded in. Antibiotics made their mark in the 1950s while antivirals, a relative newcomer in the anti-microbial arsenal arrived in the late 1970s. The advent of triple therapy, the combination of three anti-HIV drugs proved to be the turning point in the fight against AIDS.

          The arrow flying through this narrative is the highly successful scientific assault on microbes.

          Against such progress it may surprise readers to learn that the past decade has seen scientists designing novel human viruses in the lab that are potentially highly dangerous. I say potentially, for they have never been tested on humans for obvious reasons.

          Why are virologists doing this? They say their research will help us predict pandemics. Pandemics are relatively rare with Spanish flu in 1918 being the example. That said, I’ve already lived through five pandemics – flu in 1957 and 1968, AIDS in the 80s, flu again in 2009 and now COVID-19.

          Far more common are so-called viral spillovers. Chicken flu viruses in particular can spill over into humans, usually poultry handlers. Infections can be lethal – sometimes 6 out of 10 victims will die, which is horrifying. Fortunately, they are rarely transmitted between humans. Viral spillovers occur all the time because there is a plethora of other viruses bumping into fellow humans.

          Let’s stick with flu. Researchers were afraid some chicken flu viruses might mutate one day and spark a pandemic. They wanted to know what combination of mutations could morph a spillover virus into becoming easily transmissible between humans by the respiratory route. After deliberate use of powerful gene engineering methods they succeeded.

          You read correctly. We now have a dozens of novel viruses in the freezers of several lab around the world. Their genetic blueprints were published in top scientific journals. We must consider these man-made viruses as highly dangerous, some with the potential to spark a pandemic. Of course, they have never been ‘tested’ in humans because that would be ethically impossible. And herein lies the fatal weakness of this work.

          Nothing goes right all the time. So it is in research labs. Despite sophisticated safety installations and strict rules in virology labs accidents and leaks happen. Indeed, they are underreported. Well documented accidents have occurred in Germany, the UK, China, the US and Russia. As the 18th century poet Alexander Pope wrote, ‘To err is human’.

          While the risk of an accident or lab leak is very small it is not zero. Our societies need virologists brave enough to work on deadly viruses like Ebola, Marburg and Lassa fever viruses. Sometimes, sadly, they lay down their lives in the fight against microbes. I’m thinking of a young woman in her late 20s…

          So, the arguments for man-made viruses had better be very good. Right?

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