Coronavirus: Thread

grarpamp grarpamp at
Mon Jan 2 19:53:21 PST 2023

Congress Should Investigate 'Gain-Of-Function' Research

I fear that the investigations Republicans have promised in the House
next year will be little more than another round of toxic partisan
gamesmanship. But there is one investigation Congress should
undertake, and that is into so-called “gain-of-function” research.

Before the pandemic, I suspect that most of you, like me, had never
heard of gain-of-function research. What we learned during the
pandemic is that scientists around the world routinely tinker with the
genome of viruses to see how the induced changes will affect
replication of the virus (contagiousness) and the effects it has on
its host (lethality). Such research has apparently been going on for
decades and is routinely funded by governments, including ours.

Within weeks of the COVID-19 virus emerging in China near the Wuhan
Institute of Virology (WIV), many began to question whether the virus
had been created by gain-of-function research and somehow escaped from
WIV’s labs. Recently analyzed Chinese documents from early in the
pandemic seem to suggest the virus might have come from WIV. To many,
the proposition that the novel coronavirus just happened to naturally
occur a few hundred yards from the WIV facility seemed too much of a

But in February 2020, barely three months after the virus’s genome had
been sequenced, 27 scientists signed a statement in the medical
journal The Lancet, unequivocally declaring that the virus had
occurred naturally and that any suggestion to the contrary was
quackery and a conspiracy theory. Their statement quickly became the
accepted orthodoxy for much of the world’s scientific community and
virtually all the mainstream media.

However, as time wore on, circumstances regarding the origin of that
statement came under scrutiny. In a 2021 Vanity Fair article,
investigative journalist Katherine Eban revealed that the statement
was organized by a scientist named Peter Daszak. That statement
concluded with a declaration from the scientists who signed it that
“we have no competing interests.” However, Eban reported in a
follow-up article that Daszak was the director of EcoHealth Alliance,
which in 2014 had received a $3.7 million grant from the NIH for
gain-of-function research and made a sub-grant for $600,000 – to the

I wrote to the email address reserved for the statement in the Lancet
post, posing a number of questions about the circumstances around the
creation of the letter and the “competing interests” statement. I also
reached out to two of the scientists who signed the letter asking for
an interview regarding the statement. I received no responses.

Questions about gain-of-function research predate COVID. In fact,
there has been a robust debate over the potential risks and benefits
that dates to, at least, 2011. In 2014, a group of 300 prominent
scientists, led by Harvard’s highly regarded epidemiologist Marc
Lipsitch, signed a statement raising alarms about risks associated
with gain-of-function research.

The academic controversy caused the Obama administration to issue a
moratorium on gain-of-function research, but it included a general
exception for studies “urgently necessary to protect the public health
or national security.” According to Eban’s reporting, the exception
quickly became a glaring loophole that essentially rendered the rule
useless: the controversial research mostly continued unabated.

The Trump administration scrapped the moratorium in favor of a complex
review process. But that process was mostly conducted outside of the
public’s view or even significant peer review, leaving many of the
critics, including Lipsitch, still wary.

The debate over the origins of COVID still rages today and
unfortunately has become politicized, with Democrats and Republicans
generally lining up behind the natural and lab-leak theories,
respectively. In August 2021, the National Intelligence Council issued
an unclassified report in response to an order from President Biden to
review the origin of the virus. The report stated that the
intelligence community had not been able to reach a conclusion and
that the origin would likely never be known without more cooperation
from the Chinese government. Of course, the more time that passes the
less likely it is that the mystery will ever be solved.

While we would all like to know how the pandemic started, the mere
fact that it might have originated from gain-of-function research gone
awry makes it imperative to conduct a detailed investigation of the
risks and potential benefits of this kind of research. Of all the
things we regulate, surely tinkering with viruses to make them more
contagious and more lethal should be right at the top of the list.
Congress needs to pass laws closely regulating what Rutgers professor
Richard Ebright described to Katherine Eban as “looking for a gas leak
with a lighted match” and not leave this up to executive orders.

Congress should also investigate what appears to have been a
coordinated attempt to squelch any inquiry into the legitimate
questions over COVID’s origins in the early days of the pandemic. For
example, the signers of the Lancet statement should be subpoenaed and
questioned about what was almost certainly a false certification of
“no competing interests” by at least one of the signers. (The
criticism regarding potential conflicts of interest is not just coming
from the right: The uber-progressive Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs
disbanded a group he had established to study the origins of COVID,
citing conflicts of interest. Interestingly, Daszak was part of the
group Sachs disbanded.)

I don’t know whether House Republicans can conduct such hearings
without turning them into a carnival sideshow. But hopefully they will
rise above partisan instincts and deliver much-needed answers for the
American people.

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