Is the best way to protect people from a dangerous virus to create one in a lab? That’s the central question in the debate over gain-of-function research, a branch of virology that alters viruses in a controlled environment to make them more transmissible or infectious.
Proponents of this type of research say the work enables them to predict deadly pathogens that might emerge in real life and start work on vaccines or treatments ahead. But opponents think the experiments are simply too risky. A lab without proper safety protocol could accidentally release a more transmissible virus into the human population.
Competing theories about the coronavirus’ origin have recently thrust this gain-of-function debate into the spotlight, since a prominent lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was conducting that kind of research on coronaviruses. What’s more, the US has funded grants that supported that lab — which might have given State Department officials an incentive not to thoroughly investigate the possibility of a lab leak, according to a recent Vanity Fair investigation.
Vanity Fair reported that at a December 2020 meeting, US State Department officials were “explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to US government funding of it.”
For years, the US government gave grants to a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance, which in turn funded gain-of-function research — including studies at the Wuhan institute.
In a January internal memo obtained by Vanity Fair, Thomas DiNanno, former acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, wrote that his colleagues had warned leaders within his bureau “not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19” because it would “open a can of worms.”
Of course, the possibility that US officials may have wanted to distance themselves from any association with gain-of-function work doesn’t necessarily make the lab-leak theory more credible. The leading theory is still that the virus spilled over to people from animals. That’s because around 75% of all new infectious diseases come to us from animals, and the coronavirus’ genetic code is very similar to that of other coronaviruses found in bats.
Still, a growing chorus of political and public-health leaders are calling for more thorough investigations into the coronavirus’ origin, including the possibility that it leaked from a lab.
How the lab-leak theory reentered the conversation
The lab leak theory gained traction again at the end of March, after World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that “all hypotheses remain on the table” as to the virus’ origin — even after a WHO report concluded that a lab leak was unlikely. In a May letter, a group of biologists wrote that the lab-leak theory should be taken seriously “until we have sufficient data.”
Proponents of this possibility usually point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), since scientists were studying coronaviruses there before the pandemic.
But at the start of the pandemic, scientists quickly shut down the notion that the WIV could be to blame. A February 2020 statement published by 27 scientists in the journal The Lancet said the scientific community had overwhelmingly concluded that the virus originated in wildlife.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the statement read.
However, the organizer of that statement was the president of EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak.
In May 2014, EcoHealth received a roughly $3.7 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of which went toward gain-of-function experiments. By 2018, EcoHealth was receiving up to $15 million per year in grant money from federal agencies, according to Vanity Fair.
In one instance, EcoHealth Alliance helped fund research that created a new infectious pathogen using the molecular structure of the SARS virus. The aim of the study, according to the researchers, was to warn of the potential risk of a SARS-related virus re-emerging from bats.
One of the paper’s authors was a prominent WIV virologist, Shi Zhengli. NIAID and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are cited as financial supporters of the research.
The Trump administration canceled EcoHealth’s $3.7 million grant in April 2020. Then the NIH reinstated the grant in July but temporarily suspended its research activities.
Both NIAID director Anthony Fauci and NIH Director Francis Collins have said that US agencies never funded gain-of-function research at the WIV.
“I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from,” Fauci told Senator Rand Paul at a Senate hearing last month. “But again, we have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. No matter how many times you say it, it didn’t happen.”
He added, though, that it would have been “irresponsible” if the US hadn’t investigated bat viruses that may have caused the SARS outbreak.
“Are you really saying that we are implicated because we gave a multibillion-dollar institution $120,000 a year for bat surveillance?” Fauci told the Financial Times on Friday.
The US has funded gain-of-function research before
The US currently decides whether to fund gain-of-function experiments on a case-by-case basis. A multidisciplinary board at the Department of Health and Human Services evaluates the research to determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
The Trump administration implemented that policy in 2017. Before that, the Obama administration had put a moratorium on new funding for gain-of-function experiments that could make influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses more transmissible — or more likely to cause disease — through respiratory droplets in mammals. But that rule, created in October 2014, still made exceptions for research that was “urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.”
An NIH official told Vanity Fair that the government’s approach to gain-of-function is complicated, though.
“If you ban gain-of-function research, you ban all of virology,” the official said, adding, “Ever since the moratorium, everyone’s gone wink-wink and just done gain-of-function research anyway.”
Aylin Woodward contributed reporting.