In this dangerous times governments should use the occasion as a deep reflection moment to meditate on the safety of gain-of-function (GOF) research. Chinese laboratories could have caused the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic or not, but, in any, case they applied these experiments. GOF research is aimed to enhance microbic agents making them more aggressive, more contagious, or infective towards living beings to which they were previously harmless.
This type of research would have the noble aim of developing new prevention techniques (especially vaccines). Gain-of-function, however, hides the enormous risk to create the dangers from which in principle we wanted to safeguard. In this way we could create, instead, a “self-fulfilling prophecy“ (Maybe the case of the 1977 “Russian Flu”).
The debate has inevitably divided the scientific community for the evidence that can lead to the spread of real weapons. An engineered microbic agent is, in fact, usable both for terrorist or warfare purposes. Lastly, they can also casually spread diseases for errors (statistically always present).
The issue arose in 2011 when the NSABB suppressed two studies involving modified H5N1 viruses to allow airborne transmission from ferret to ferret. Scientists warned of the danger that malicious actors could replicate the work to deliberately cause an epidemic in humans.
Research for prevention or warfare?
After a long debate, Science journal fully published the studies in 2012. Subsequently, in 2014, the United States presented various biosecurity dangers. Dozens of workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were exposed to anthrax; vials of smallpox virus were found abandoned in an NIH warehouse; the CDC unwittingly sent samples of the influenza virus hybridized with the H5N1 virus. The accumulation of these events led to the request by 200 scientists for the cessation of these experiments:
Until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits and mitigation opportunities risk, as well as a comparison with experimental approaches.
Risk-benefit ratio is not an exact science
In 2016, the NSABB published a set of recommendations for evaluating gain-of-function research which outlines the criteria for evaluating potential benefits and risks. Michael Selgelid (Monash University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia) writes to The Lancet Infectious that the questions to ask are:
How likely is research to be beneficial? What kind of benefits could they give? How likely is research to cause harm? And how big would these damages be?.
Moreover, he adds:
The evaluation of the risk-benefit ratio is not an exact science, nor is it perfectly objective: most of the time it will be very difficult to say what constitutes a situation in which the benefits outweigh the risks.
In 2017 the Trump commission lifted the ban. After 16 months in a pandemic that could be caused by this kind of research, there’s still no revision on the safety of gain-of-function (GOF) research. Actually, the danger is bigger than ever, and China is probably the most dangerous place considering that is constantly building new BSL-4 laboratories working on GOF research in high density urban regions.