Joel B. Pollak
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) imposed a three-year pause on funding for “gain-of-function (GOF) experiments involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses” from 2014 to 2017, in part to prevent accidental releases of deadly new viruses from laboratories — a pause with potential relevance for understanding today’s ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Suspicions are growing that the virus may have escaped a lab in Wuhan, China, though the scientific consensus last year was that its emergence was “most likely the result of natural selection,” and that “[i]t is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation.”
However, scientists have developed the ability to create such coronaviruses.
In November 2015, a letter in Nature Medicine reported that scientists had been able to create a “spike” protein on a SARS-like coronavirus — one apparently impervious to vaccine.
One of the scientists listed as a co-author was Zheng-li Shi, the “bat woman” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who has denied the virus could have escaped from her lab, though she admitted losing sleep over the possibility. (Others, including Sen. Ted. Cruz, (R-TX), have raised the possibility.)
Another paper by Shi, in 2016, documented the creation of a SARS-like virus with an extra protein that inhibited the body’s production of interferon, necessary to fight viruses. (Theoretically, such a mutation could explain why young people are generally less affected by coronavirus: they tend to produce more interferon than older people.)
The 2015 paper indicates the research was conducted before the NIH’s pause in “gain-of-function” research. There had been another, voluntary pause in research of the H5N1 influenza virus in 2012.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, commended researchers for putting their work on hold for ethical reasons. “We need to be certain that the fundamental purposes of this work, together with its risks and benefits, are understood,” he wrote at the time.
He added: “In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic?”
Given that health authorities — including Dr. Fauci, part of the White House coronavirus task force — once acknowledged the risk of an accidental release, the ethical questions surrounding such research will likely be revisited, as scientists piece together the puzzle of how COVID-19 arose and spread.
One question seems particularly urgent: are laboratories in other countries covered by the ethical rules that apply to NIH-funded research? And when the NIH ordered a pause on funding of “gain-of-function” research, were China’s labs — particularly the Wuhan Institute of Virology — covered as well?
Knowing the answer may help prevent the next pandemic, even if the coronavirus outbreak is ultimately confirmed to be natural in origin.