Gain of function research: a moral dilemma

Would you fund research that could prevent a pandemic, but may accidentally cause one in the process?
19 October 2021


Was the covid-19 coronavirus man-made?


We’re talking about the broader implications of a topic that’s never been far from the headlines way back since the Covid pandemic began. Ros Atkins, from the BBC’s Outside Source programme reported on the announcement earlier this year that US officials were formally investigating the possibility that Covid-19 is an escaped laboratory experiment, saying...

Ros - Well the issue of where the pandemic began and how it began has never really gone away, but it's back centre-stage because US intelligence officials are now redoubling efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19. The orders come from President Biden. Here's the statement. It says, "The intelligence community is split on whether the virus came from human contact with an infected animal or emerged in a laboratory accident". You've probably heard that laboratory theory before: it's that the virus emerged from the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. This is one of China's top virus research labs, and we already know that the city became the first epicentre of the virus, but the questions are where did it originally come from? Some believe the lab is where it started...

This week the World Health Organisation also convened a new investigative team to examine the question. So you may well ask, “why would scientists want to engineer potentially lethal viruses, and why is this even allowed?” But this practice is actually highly legitimate and what’s often referred to as ‘gain of function’ research. It’s where scientists try to alter the behaviour of microbes, including viruses such as influenza, or coronaviruses, so that they can learn more about how diseases and pandemics evolve, and new ways to treat them. We’re exploring what goes on during gain of function research, whether it’s safe and how it’s regulated and controlled. To begin, Sally Le Page presents a moral dilemma, based on the real-life experiments that sparked the whole debate. If you were in charge of scientific funding, what would you do?

Sally - It’s 2007. A new strain of bird flu has been going around for about 10 years. It’s really transmissible and deadly in birds and every so often, someone working in close contact with domesticated chickens gets infected, and sadly 300 people have died. It’s a pretty nasty disease. But to become a human pandemic, the disease needs to be able to spread from human to human, and so far there isn’t any evidence that that has happened. Some leading flu experts are saying that it will never adapt to humans and there’s no chance of it becoming a human disease. Other experts aren’t so sure.

With this information, how worried would you be about this disease becoming a pandemic? Would you spend millions of pounds monitoring it? Would you ignore it?

Then a team of respected scientists offers to research how likely it is that this bird flu virus could mutate to become capable of spreading between humans. If the researchers are unable to make this virus spread between mammals in the lab, in this case ferrets, the chances of it causing a human pandemic are slim to none. If they can make this disease adapt to mammals, well then, you know exactly which mutations might lead to a human pandemic. You can spend money on monitoring and start developing new vaccines, potentially preventing a massive deadly pandemic. But in the process, the scientists will have created a new, more infectious version of an already dangerous and deadly virus. The researchers will take huge safety measures, but if the virus were somehow to escape the lab, it could cause the very pandemic you’re trying to prevent.

What would you have done? Would you fund the research?


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