Panel recommends new controls on deadly gain-of-function research. Will the government listen?

Illustration by Erik English

This past week, a government-appointed panel of scientists released a new report recommending 13 actions the U.S. government should take to control “gain-of-function” research that has the potential to create deadly new pathogens.

This has been a long time coming, but the first thing I want to point out is that this is just an advisory panel. The government hasn’t done anything yet. Let’s unpack what happened, shall we?

First, the panel is called the NSABB: the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. The new report, which was at least 3 years in the making, was created in response to a decade’s worth of concerns, raised by many scientists (including me - see my previous articles here and here and here, among others), about the dangers of a specific kind of research known as gain-of-function.

What is gain-of-function (GoF) research? Well, it can include many scientific experiments, including some that are perfectly reasonable. But the term has been used most often to refer to experiments that are designed to take a virus such as influenza or SARS-CoV-2 and alter it intentionally to make it more deadly.

This seems crazy, right? Yet it’s been going on in the influenza virus research world for at least a decade, which is why many scientists have raised alarms.

The Covid-19 pandemic gave this issue much greater urgency, after suspicions arose that the Covid-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2, might have emerged (accidentally) from gain-of-function experiments at a major virology lab in Wuhan, China. (It probably didn’t, but we still don’t know for sure, as I’ve explained in previous columns.)

So back to the topic at hand: the new NSABB report. What do they recommend, and will it matter? I don’t want to go through all 13 recommendations, but overall it’s a very good start, if (and only if) the U.S. government takes them seriously and implements them all.

And the virology community is already pushing back - but first let me go into just three of the recommendations.

First, the panel recommends that the government require that all GoF research undergo federal-level review if the work is

“reasonably anticipated to enhance the transmissibility and/or virulence of any pathogen.”

Believe it or not, GoF research that does this kind of thing is going on right now, and there’s no rule saying it must be reviewed first.

Second, the panel recommends that the government only allow such research if there’s simply no better, lower-risk way to gain the same scientific insights. As they put it, scientists who want to do GoF work would have to prove that

“there are no feasible alternative methods ... that poses less risk ... and the risks are justified by the potential benefits.”

That’s a high bar to clear, but it seems eminently reasonable to insist upon it before allowing dangerous GoF research to proceed.

The panel also recommends that the new restrictions on gain-of-function research apply to all research in the U.S., regardless of whether it’s funded by the government. This is an important addition, as illustrated recently when Boston University, after being called out for dangerous gain-of-function experiments on the Covid-19 virus, claimed that they didn’t use NIH funds for this, so (they argued) they didn’t break any rules. Technically, they were correct. This recommendation will close that giant loophole.

There’s much more in the NSABB report, and my primary reaction is that (1) it’s a good start and (2) it’s not nearly enough. I’d like to see the government make a blanket statement that research that will make deadly viruses even more deadly is simply forbidden, at least for now. If someone wants an exception, they could make the case, but I’ve yet to see a good argument for these experiments.

What about that pushback from the virologists that I mentioned above? Well, in a lengthy commentary just published in the Journal of Virology, 156 virologists argue that gain-of-function research is wonderful! And it’s brought so many benefits! Just let us handle this, and don’t worry, they seem to be saying.

To make the benefits explicit, the 156 virologists include a table listing dozens of “useful examples” of gain-of-function research. Let’s look at just two of them.

Example 1: the virologists assert that experiments on a virus called M13 led to faster computers, citing a 2018 article. First, this is nonsense: no one has been a faster computer using a modified M13 virus. Second, the M13 virus is harmless to humans (it only infects bacteria), so it wouldn’t be subject to any regulations on GoF research in human pathogens.

Example 2: this one is even more outrageous. The table lists as a “benefit” an experiment that “established that H5N1 has capacity for mammalian transmissibility.” They then cite a notorious experiment from 2012 in which scientists intentionally modified a deadly bird flu virus (H5N1) in order to make it possible for the virus to be transmitted directly between mammals. This was one of the key experiments that led to the widespread alarm about GoF research in the first places. (I wrote about it back in 2013.)

So no, creating a more-deadly virus and then saying “see? look how dangerous this virus is?” is not what I’d call useful.

Clearly, the virologists who wrote this commentary do not want to see any restrictions at all on the kind of research they do. They just don’t see the need for it. Obviously, I disagree, as do many others, including many virologists who support the NSABB recommendations.

As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, the NSABB report is just a set of recommendations, and the government might not do anything. I hope that the government will implement all of them, and then go even further, and put a stop to the dangerous, sometimes reckless experiments that a very small minority of scientists are engaging in.

We need to study viruses, and we need to control infectious diseases, but we can do this without making pathogens more deadly.

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