The search for answers on the origins of Covid-19 has focused global attention on a controversial angle of science that previously operated far from public view.
The work, known as “function gain” research, involves the manipulation of pathogens, often to make them more lethal. Proponents argue that it is vital to understand how viruses behave and how they can become resistant to vaccines and treatments. Critics say the risk of one of the viruses escaping and leading to a pandemic is too great.
The debate is so heated that former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2014 planted federal funding to win the search for functions on Sars, Mers and influenza viruses, while officials drew up more approval guidelines. tight. The ban was lifted and the new rules were finally enacted in 2017 by the Trump administration.
“If you’re going to do an experiment that carries an appreciable risk of starting a new pandemic, there should be a very good public health justification for doing so,” explains Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard.
Yet the gain of functional research, or very similar work, has continued since the ban in laboratories around the world, often with U.S. funding, and most importantly in the structure that is now at the center of the debate. on the origin of the coronavirus: Wuhan Institute of Virology.
A multinational group of 15 scientists working at the Wuhan Institute received $ 600,000 in U.S. public funds between 2015 and 2020 to investigate whether bat coronaviruses posed a risk to humans, Anthony Fauci, director of the The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the U.S. Senate said this week.
As part of the work, the team – including the renowned Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, known as China’s “batwoman” – has spread two different coronaviruses, creating a more dangerous version, which they have found possible to infect humans, according to a Charter 2015 scientists published in the journal Nature.
Marti Fauci denied that the experiments constituted a gain in function research. However, the 2015 journal carried a strict warning: “Scientific review panels may consider similar studies that construct chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to persecute.”
“These data and restrictions represent a crossroads of GOF [gain of function] research concerns, “the scientists wrote.” The potential for preparing and mitigating future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens. “
The warning has taken on a greater resonance since some scientists, still lacking definitive evidence that Sars-Cov-2 jumped naturally to humans from bats or through a host of intermediate animals, have refocused their attention on the possibility that he escaped from the Wuhan Institute.
“We will take the hypothesis about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” he wrote in a group of scientists, including Ralph Baric, one of the authors of the 2015 paper. an open letter this month.
A World Health Organization survey, facilitated by China, found earlier this year that it was “extremely unlikely” that Sars-Cov-2 had leaked from a research facility. But the conclusion was challenged in March by countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, and by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, who said the investigation had not been “broad enough.”
This week U.S. President Joe Biden ordered his intelligence agencies reviews and tests for the laboratory leak hypothesis and reach a conclusion within 90 days. Chinese state media have repeatedly said denied that a laboratory leak was possible and described the theory as a “conspiracy.”
The renewed attention has raised difficult questions for the U.S. National Institutes of Health about its relationship with the Wuhan Institute and research. Baric and the EcoHealth Alliance – a non-governmental group through which NIH has channeled its funding – have, like Fauci, denied before that his work in Wuhan constituted a gain of functional research, in part because it was not intended to increase infectivity in humans.
Baric, NIH, the EcoHealthAlliance and the Wuhan Institute did not respond to requests for comment.
But while NIH-funded work in Wuhan has been classified, some experts, including Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, argue that it should not be done.
“Regardless of whether the Covid-19 pandemic was the result of a laboratory loss, the very fact that such a result is plausible means that it is a category of research that we should not fund or help carry out,” he said. Ebright.
Ebright also questioned safety standards at the Wuhan facility. In 2016, some of the scientists including Shi and EcoHealth director Peter Daszak used NIH funding to conduct experiments in Wuhan on live coronaviruses in a biosafety level 2 lab, according to published details of the work. BSL-2 structures are commonly used for moderate-risk work only, where researchers can experiment in open benches wearing only lab coats and gloves.
“If this work was happening, it certainly shouldn’t have happened in BSL-2,” Ebright said. “That’s roughly equivalent to a standard dental office.”
China’s first biosafety level laboratory 4, where the most risky biological work is done, was opened in Wuhan in 2018. Daszak has not responded to a request for comment.
Ebright is not alone in his concerns. In 2018, American diplomats in China he would send cables warns Washington: “The new laboratory [at Wuhan] has a severe shortage of adequately trained technicians and researchers needed to safely operate this high-capacity laboratory. ”
While scientists say the world will never know for sure whether Covid-19 originated naturally or in Wuhan’s lab, many believe the pandemic has highlighted why such research should not have done anything.
Milton Leitenberg, an expert in biological weapons at the University of Maryland, said: “Whatever the classification of this work, it should not be taken to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
More information from Yuan Yang is Nian Liu in Beijing