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  • Writer's pictureSwaha Chakraborty

Gain of Function and Covid-19

Gain of Function Research (GOFR) refers to research that involves giving an organism a new or enhanced trait through either natural mutations or synthetic genetic manipulation. However, this paper looks specifically at gain of function research using Potential Pandemic Pathogens (PPPs). This type of research studies the characteristics of existing viruses through enhancing its transmissibility, replication, virulence, immune invasion, host range, and vaccine resistance. Scientists performing GOFR claim that such research provides a better understanding of the specific mechanisms that allow certain pathogens to become pandemic causing agents, allowing governments to better equip themselves against future pandemics, as virologists can utilize the research to develop drugs and vaccines in response3. It is not my plan to take a stance on the ethics of Gain of Function Research of Concern, but rather assess the competency of existing regulatory frameworks, and recommend changes or additional policies accordingly.

Gain of Function Research using PPPs falls into a broader category of research known as Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has described DURC as: “Life sciences research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety”. Gain of Function Research using viruses falls into DURC due to its biosecurity threat to the general population. If GOFR is published, malefactors (which can include state actors or governments) would essentially have a step-by-step guide on how to manufacture their own lethal viruses, which could be used in biological warfare and bioterrorism. For that reason, this specific kind of GOFR has its own name: Gain of Function Research of Concern, or GOFROC that can be misused by third party members.

Accidental laboratory leaks are also a major concern regarding GOFROC. Even if the research being conducted was being done with honorable intentions, carelessness or mere human error may result in the pathogen escaping its laboratory. Once the virus has escaped it is not only impossible to capture, but due to the GOF modifications to its transmissibility and virulence, it is likely that its escape would result in a pandemic. Like a biosecurity breach, the general population, which likely had no idea such research was even being conducted, would be greatly impacted.

GOFR’s Introduction through COVID-19 When arguing the risks and benefits of Gain of Function Research, debates surrounding the origin of the 2019 coronavirus quickly find their way to the center of the discussion. There

are two primary theories to account for the pandemic’s origin: a) zoonotic – the virus developed naturally, and was the result of interspecies transmission, or b) laboratory breach - the virus was artificially engineered in a laboratory due to Gain of Function research and escaped the facility. Those in favor of a zoonotic explanation of the virus’s origin believe that COVID 19 may have originated in a seafood market in Wuhan, in which a natural intermediate host spread the virus to a human. Conversely, those who believe that the virus was genetically modified, believe that this modification occurred in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory which conducted Gain of Function Research on corona viruses. However, solely using the current available information, it is impossible to determine a clear consensus on the virus’ origin. While a definite answer to COVID’s origin would sway public opinion, provide transparency, and put critical light on the policies and regulations governing such research, this paper will use the debate itself to highlight the policy deficiencies around GOFR and how the policy gaps can be filled. Debates surrounding COVID’s origin may have been far more decisive had there been a greater amount of information available from the Chinese Government. Chinese authorities did the public a disservice by suppressing critical data. Following the outbreak, all records at the Wuhan Institute were locked down, including their database for viral genomes. During this time, international scientists were also prevented from investigating the likelihood of a zoonotic beginning, as the roads to the caves in Yunnan were blocked off and samples from the caves were taken away from scientists. Any information shared was done so by Chinese scientists who were risking their careers. It is important to note that China’s unwillingness to inform the public does not necessarily mean that they were covering up a lab leak. China’s multibillion dollar illegal animal trading markets may also have been the cause and would have made them bear the blame for a global pandemic as well. Regardless, transparency regarding the Gain of Function experiments at the Wuhan Institute should have been a requirement rather than an option. The lack of transparency allowed members of the public to assume the worst. Despite discussions surrounding Gain of Function regulation and policy existing for decades within the scientific community, the public was unfortunately introduced to it in a highly political/sensitive context. Preexisting distrust of scientists and higher government was easily exacerbated by the idea of an artificially generated pandemic created using research hidden by authorities. Unfortunately, from Mary Shelly to Micheal Crichton, popular culture finds satisfaction in overzealous scientists receiving their comeuppance. COVID-19, despite not being a confirmed lab leak, will forever be remembered in relation to Gain of Function experimentation. Erasing stigma requires reintroduction. Changes to current legislation governing GOF research are necessary in regaining the public’s trust in authority and science. A stronger policy framework can effectively alleviate public fears of Gain of Function research while also maintaining scientific freedom and experimentation. It is also important to understand how COVID-19 contextualized a pandemic for both scientists and the public alike. The coronavirus pandemic uncovered weaknesses in our global systems, political, economic, and social, alike. It also highlighted the need for international cooperation, and shared information. The pandemic demands we take a second look at the frameworks currently in place to contain gain of function research of concern and evaluate if it is strong enough to prevent future outbreaks.


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