Gain of function research is a technique in which diseases are artificially engineered to have enhanced biological effects — including increases in their deadliness and transmissibility. While proponents of this research argue it serves as an important tool to better understand diseases and combat future pandemics, many academics and experts have questioned its benefits, arguing that these potential benefits are outweighed by the risks. After all, humanity is only as safe from a genetically engineered virus as the lab that created it is secure from leaks.
This fear of a deliberately-altered virus escaping a lab to cause a global pandemic is one that has already played out. In 1978, smallpox escaped a lab in Birmingham, England and killed a woman, with lab mismanagement responsible for the leak. In 2004, a number of researchers who contracted SARS in a lab went on to infect their families — resulting in nearly 1,000 people in quarantine to stop the outbreak.
Notably, the current COVID-19 “pandemic” may have been a product of an escaped pathogen from a laboratory — the Wuhan Institute of Virology — that performs gain of function research. In fact, a recent report by the U.S. Intelligence Community failed to rule out a lab-leak as the origin for COVID-19, expressing doubt in previous assessments that COVID-19 was a purely natural phenomenon. Unfortunately, scientists don’t know enough to ascertain exactly what COVID-19’s origin story is. Without more cooperation and transparency from the Chinese government, Chinese President Xi Jinping may very well be the only person in the world to truly know for certain how the pandemic originated.
In the meantime, however, we ought to be doing everything possible to prevent a future pandemic from escaping a lab — and there’s a role for academic institutions like the University to play in doing so.
One simple area to action on is to ban University funding for or support of gain of function research. As mentioned earlier, gain of function research involves the engineering of dangerous diseases for the purpose of scientific study, which places our public health in the hands of the safety procedures of the lab conducting it. That leads to a lot of risk — sometimes, despite the best mitigation efforts, accidents happen. Especially after our current struggles with a raging pandemic that’s relatively survivable as far as diseases go, one ought to be concerned about what will happen should we have a far-deadlier pandemic in the future.
On May 5th, the U.S. Senate passed U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s amendment that would permanently ban all funding of gain-of-function research in China. This is following much back-and-forth with Dr. Fauci, and continually defending against the use of American taxpayer dollars in funding gain-of-function research, which aims to enhance the infectiousness or severity of a virus. The amendment is co-sponsored by U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Dr. Roger Marshall (R-KS), U.S. Senator Mike Braun (R-IN), and U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC).
“We don’t know whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally,” said Dr. Paul. “While many still deny funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, experts believe otherwise. The passage of my amendment ensures that this never happens in the future. No taxpayer money should have ever been used to fund gain-of-function research in Wuhan, and now we permanently have put it to a stop.”
Sen. Rand Paul said newly disclosed documents providing fresh details on the extent of U.S. funding of coronavirus research in China lends credence to his assertions that Dr. Anthony Fauci lied in testimony before Congress.
The Kentucky Republican, who referred President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser to the Justice Department for allegedly lying to a Senate committee by denying the National Institutes of Health funded gain-of-function research at a lab in Wuhan, China, reacted to information published on Monday by the Intercept following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
“Surprise surprise — Fauci lied again. And I was right about his agency funding novel Coronavirus research at Wuhan,” Paul tweeted on Tuesday, September 7th.
The 900 pages of records obtained by the news outlet contain evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment, along with their collaborator, the U.S.-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, have engaged in what the U.S. government defines as “gain-of-function research of concern,” intentionally making viruses more pathogenic or transmissible in order to study them, despite stipulations from a U.S. funding agency that the money not be used for that purpose.
Grant money for the controversial experiment came from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is headed by Anthony Fauci. The award to EcoHealth Alliance, a research organization which studies the spread of viruses from animals to humans, included subawards to Wuhan Institute of Virology and East China Normal University. The principal investigator on the grant is EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, who has been a key voice in the search for Covid-19’s origins.
“The bat coronavirus grant provided EcoHealth Alliance with a total of $3.1 million, including $599,000 that the Wuhan Institute of Virology used in part to identify and alter bat coronaviruses likely to infect humans,” the news outlet reported.
This comes after Fauci and Paul accused each other of lying about U.S. involvement with Chinese coronavirus research at a hearing in July.
“Sen. Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially. You do not know what you are talking about,” Fauci said during a heated exchange.
Paul sent a referral to the Justice Department after Fauci rejected the assertion he lied to Congress during testimony in May when he denied the NIH funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. Fauci, who has been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, said at the May 11 Senate hearing that the NIH “has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Paul’s latest swipe at Fauci came in response to a Twitter thread by Rutgers University chemical biology professor Richard Ebright, who is quoted in the Intercept’s report.
“The documents make it clear that assertions by the NIH Director, Francis Collins, and the NIAID Director, Anthony Fauci, that the NIH did not support gain-of-function research or potential pandemic pathogen enhancement at WIV are untruthful,” Ebright wrote at the end of the thread.
NIH Quietly Edits ‘Gain-of-Function’ Section On the Website
On October 25th, the National Institutes of Health edited a section of its website explaining gain-of-function research this month as scrutiny over the research the NIH funded in Wuhan, China intensified.
The original page, seen on the Wayback Machine, displays several sections including Potential Pandemic Pathogens, Gain-of-Function Research, U.S. Government Funding Pause, HHS P3CO Framework, Research Within P3CO Scope, Research Outside P3CO Scope, and a Timeline.
The Gain-of-Function section stated:
The term gain-of-function (GOF) research describes a type of research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent. Some scientists use the term broadly to refer to any such modification. However, not all research described as GOF entails the same level of risk. For example, research that involves the modification of bacteria to allow production of human insulin, or the altering of the genetic program of immune cells in CAR-T cell therapy to treat cancer generally would be considered low risk. The subset of GOF research that is anticipated to enhance the transmissibility and/or virulence of potential pandemic pathogens, which are likely to make them more dangerous to humans, has been the subject of substantial scrutiny and deliberation. Such GOF approaches can sometimes be justified in laboratories with appropriate biosafety and biosecurity controls to help us understand the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, assess the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, and inform public health and preparedness efforts, including surveillance and the development of vaccines and medical countermeasures. This research poses biosafety and biosecurity risks, and these risks must be carefully managed. When supported with NIH funds, this subset of GOF research may only be conducted in laboratories with stringent oversight and appropriate biosafety and biosecurity controls(link is external) to help protect researchers from infection and prevent the release of microorganisms into the environment. (NIH)
Now the page lists only Potential Pandemic Pathogens, ePPP Research, and Oversight.
The edits come as Sen. Rand Paul is calling for Dr. Anthony Fauci to resign for lying about gain-of-function research.
“He should be fired,” Paul told “Axios on HBO” in an interview that aired Sunday.
“The thing is, is just for lack of judgment of nothing else, and I, you know, he’s probably never going to admit that he lied, he’s going to continue to dissemble and try to work around the truth and massage the truth,” he added.
While Paul has been making this case for awhile, the sentiments were renewed after Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director at the NIH, revealed new details in a letter about an NIH grant to EcoHealth Alliance, which conducted research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Civilization at Risk from Dangerous Research
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) grilled Dr. Anthony Fauci once again on November 4th over funding risky “gain-of-function” research at the Chinese Wuhan Institute of Virology, then changing the definition after repeatedly denying it. Paul charged that the NIH changed the definition to “try and cover your ass, basically.”
Many say this Chinese lab is the source of the coronavirus pandemic through his position as a decades-long healthcare bureaucrat.
Paul urged Fauci to accept responsibility for funding risky gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, and accused him of altering the National Institutes of Health definition of the term itself to “cover your ass.”
“What we are saying is that this was risky, type of research. Gain-of-function research. It was risky to share this with the Chinese, and that COVID may have been created from a not yet revealed virus. We don’t anticipate the Chinese are going to reveal the virus if it came from their lab. You know that but you continue to mislead,” Paul said.
“Yes, our civilization could be at risk from one of these viruses,” said Paul. “Experiments that combine unknown viruses with coronavirus that have as much as 50% mortality could endanger civilization as you know it, and here you sit, unwilling to accept any responsibility for the current pandemic,” the Senator charged, “And unwilling to take any steps to prevent gain-of-function research from possibly unleashing an even more deadly virus.”
“You continue to support NIH money going to Wuhan. You continue to say you ‘trust’ the Chinese scientists. You appear to have learned nothing from this pandemic. Will you today finally take some responsibility for funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan?” Paul asked.
Fauci, attempting to avoid the question, then said gain-of-function was a “nebulous term,” adding that they trying to give a “more precise definition” of the term when they deleted gain-of-function from the NIH website and replaced it with ePPP and “P3CO.”
“We are aware that you deleted gain-of-function from the NIH website,” Senator Paul reminded Fauci. “So what you’re doing is defining away gain-of-function. You’re simply saying it doesn’t exist because you changed the definition on the NIH website. This is terrible, and you’re completely trying to escape the idea that we should do something about trying to prevent a pandemic from leaking from a lab.”
“What you’ve done is changed the definition on the website to try to cover your ass basically. That’s what you’ve done. You’ve changed the website to change the definition that doesn’t include the risky research that’s going on,” Senator Paul said.
“Gain-of-function could cause a pandemic even worse next time,” Paul said. “[It] could endanger civilization as we know it.”
The firebrand conservative claimed NIH-funded scientists “created viruses not found in nature” and that Fauci “misled” the American public by refusing to admit it.
“Your repeated denials have worn thin and the majority of Americans, frankly, don’t believe you,” Paul said. “Your persistent denials are not just a stain on your reputation but are a clear and present danger to the country and to the world.”
“You appear to have learned nothing from this pandemic,” Paul said. “I think it’s time you resign.”
Regardless of whether the viruses created at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were linked to COVID-19, similar research funded by the NIH could spark another pandemic, Paul said. He also alleged that Fauci changed the definition of the term “gain-of-function” in order to deny it had happened.
“You’ve changed the definition on your website to cover your ass,” Paul said.
But Fauci fired back, telling the Senate Health Committee that Paul is “egregiously incorrect in what he says.”
“Senator, with all due respect, I disagree with so many of the things you’ve said,” Fauci responded. “First of all, gain of function is a very nebulous term.”
He said the definition was developed over a period of two or three years beginning in 2014, and that “outside bodies have spent a lot of time to give a more precise definition because it is a research of concern that might lead to a dangerous situation.”
“The gaudiness are clear that you have to be dealing with a pathogen that clearly shows [that it’s] very likely to be highly transmissible in an uncontrollable way in humans and to have a high degree of morbidity and that you do experiments to enhance that,” he said.
In the case of the Wuhan Institute, “It’s much more likely that [COVID-19] was a natural occurrence,” Fauci said.
The heated back-and-forth came two weeks after the NIH admitted to funding gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses at China’s Wuhan lab, despite Fauci repeatedly insisting to Congress that no such thing happened.