When atomic research was in its infancy, Albert Einstein pushed the US into the nuclear era out of one concern: The Nazis may beat us to it. While that never became a reality, atomic research, which can power a city, or wipe it off the face of the planet, has its risks both accidental and intentional. Nuclear research has led to amazing discoveries including technology that powers the Curiosity and Perseverance Rovers on Mars, but has also resulted in disaster as we have seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima (and even closer to my home, at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory). Nuclear research would fall under the definition of what is known as Dual-Use-Research-of-Concern (DURC).
DURC has raised many questions in the last 20 years as biological research has led to discoveries that could either save millions of lives or, alternatively, take them. A type of DURC, gain-of-function research (GoF) essentially force-mutates viruses to make them more pathogenic, transmissible, and deadly in hopes of predicting a natural mutation event so we can develop treatments and vaccines. But just like nuclear research, viral GoF research has the potential of accidentally infecting someone with a super-virus, or worse yet, being used to develop a weaponized virus for warfare. Dr. Anthony Fauci has long been a proponent of this type of research, having defended it before a Senate Committee, the scientific community, and later, even the general public.
What the dangerous research was supposed to give scientists insight into potential viral threats ranging from natural mutations within species to natural mutations where it jumped from animals to humans, to a deliberative act of biological war. Viruses were mutated, tested for the ability to reproduce (thus spread infection), genetically analyzed, and cataloged, and those results published for scientific purposes. Thousands of variants of influenza and coronaviruses (and several other viral threats) have been identified and entered into this database with the hopes of developing a one-time universal vaccine for a wide variety of viruses. It is truly an honorable goal.
But as pointed out previously, with the good comes the risk of the bad which has been addressed numerous times by Dr. Fauci. He believes that GoF research’s benefits far outweigh the supposed benefits, yet, when you analyze that statement, you come to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic proved all of that wrong (to date). What is absolutely mindblowing though, is that the denials of the potential-lab-release of this virus as an impossibility, which ignores a decade of warnings raised by scientists in the field.
This leaves us with a simple question:
If this research is for the defense against viral threats, why was it utterly worthless with the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2?
We now sit at a global death toll of over 3.5 million people, yet, to my knowledge, we have not saved a single life with SARS and Influenza GoF research. We’ve lost friends and family to a virus that all of the GoF experiments in the world (supposedly) never identified and destroyed the global economy in the process. There even exists the potential that we (and by we, I mean mankind) have done the very thing we were warned about, which is accidentally released a deadly virus. What benefit have we received for taking all of this risk?
Sure, we could make the argument that “yet-to-be-determined medical advancements are coming,” and that this research may bear the fruit it was meant to, but that still doesn’t factor for the ongoing risk, which has not yet been addressed or reduced. If this virus did originate in a lab, it likely killed more people than the gleaned research saved, and even if it was a zoonotic (natural mutation) event, the research still didn’t provide any benefit (yet). Why should we continue without additional assurances, like the prohibition of US taxpayer funding of GoF research at international labs?
We should be concerned about this type of research and the potential of those negative consequences. At the very least, the US should never again conduct joint experiments with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. There’s absolutely no benefit to doing so.