What, Exactly, is Gain of Function in Virus Research?

In the case of Covid, the virus has several features which are unique and have never been found in natural coronaviruses, suggesting it has been manipulated in a lab. For example, the virus contains a furin cleavage site, a genetic feature that makes it uniquely infectious to humans and has never been seen naturally in other coronaviruses. Another feature suggestive of a lab source is that, despite an intensive search over three years, no animal reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 has ever been identified. The wet market theory of its source has been definitively debunked by genetic data on the virus combined with tracing back to the first known patient, who was not tied to the market.

The obvious question is why do we do GOF research anyway? There are two reasons, one is given by the researchers themselves. The other is unspoken in public but possibly the more likely of the two.

The first reason is to anticipate future pandemics. The idea behind this is that, if we can create a virus in advance of its occurrence naturally, we can better prepare for it, create vaccines and so on. There are two problems with this reasoning. One is that we have never done that. I repeat. We have never created a new or altered virus that subsequently arose through natural means. Laboratory intervention can artificially accelerate the natural process of mutation and natural selection by hundreds, if not thousands of times. The other problem is that when we produce an enhanced virus, we now have one for which there is as yet no treatment or vaccine (much like Covid) and, if this escapes the lab, we have potentially opened a Pandora’s Box of unintended, catastrophic consequences. It is not hyperbole that such a virus might make SARS-CoV-2 look like a mild cold by comparison. A virus with a 10% case/fatality rate**, and there are such, could devastate the world’s population and collapse societies. If you knew how often such lab leaks occur, you should be terrified. This happened in Russia in 1990 with the Marburg Virus, which has a case/fatality rate of 30-90%. Fortunately, that was quickly contained.

The second reason for GOF is more dark and malevolent. It is to create a bioweapon. No’s. 6 and 7 above are consistent with a bioweapon. If a country, such as Russia, China, or, God forbid, North Korea can create a virus and protect its population, this is a more frightening scenario than a nuclear exchange. A population could be hit before they knew what happened much more easily than smuggling in nuclear weapons or firing ballistic missles. Look at how hard it has been to nail down the origin of Covid until, finally, the Chinese lab leak theory became not only inescapable, but the must likely explanation. Of course a bioweapon of this sort could also escape in the country that developed it, wreaking havoc on its own population.

My readings strongly suggest that GOF serves no useful purpose and creates risk. Anything with all downside and no humanitarian upside should probably not be done. There should a national and international conversation about whether such research serves humanity.

So far, the US continues to finance GOF in the US and overseas with no oversight or transparency. I think this is outrageous. You should too.

Richard T. Bosshardt, MD, FACS

**case/fatality is the number of people who contract Covid, become symptomatic and die. The case fatality rate or CFR for Covid is age-dependent, among other things, and ranges from essentially 0% in children under 9 to 8% or more of those 70 and older. Those numbers are estimates and have changed greatly with Omicron, which is more infectious, but less lethal.

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