(The American Conservative) COVID, whatever its origins, presents an opportunity to talk about risks and benefits in scientific experiments.
In theory, gain-of-function research prevents pandemics. Scientists subject pathogens to adaptive pressures, novel environments, animal experiments, protein modifications, and the like to see in action how they go about becoming dangerous to human beings. It’s supposed to keep us one step ahead of the enemy, knowing their tricks before they can use them, seeing mutations before they’ve happened, so that we prevent those conditions from occurring in the wild and can rapidly develop vaccines and treatments for viruses we’ve never seen before. It’s heroic “blue sky” research, the kind you do just because of what it might produce.
In practice, gain-of-function experiments are an established, sexy-sounding way to use a lab. You’re dealing with live pathogens, so it’s obviously dangerous, which means you need to use the best equipment and best practices that make the highest biosafety levels. You need funding. You’re a research scientist and want to get published, and producing and observing a potential pandemic virus is a sure way for you to have something to write about. The more it could kill, the cooler, right? Bet the money and recognition will come pouring in. Scientists are only human.
In theoretical practice, gain-of-function research is something you do as a matter of course, wherever they’ll let you do it, as long as there’s funding. Maintaining the highest standards for biosafety levels is hard, and since you would never be so stupid as to make a mistake, you can cut some corners. Besides, suiting up is not only annoying and uncomfortable; it makes it actually more difficult to conduct the experiments. That’s where the error will come from, right? You’re actually doing better, even safer science, skipping some steps. Yes, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a global leader in research on coronaviruses, has a biosafety level four lab, but its labs also mostly operate at a comfortable and efficient biosafety level two.
I said theoretical practice, because we don’t know. But leading scientists, and science journalists, and your smart friends, all think it’s worth investigating whether the long-named thing we call COVID-19 here leaked from a Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory. “The science” on this is decidedly not settled. That was the point 18 virologists, epidemiologists, and the like made in a letter in Science journal Thursday, writing, “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.” That was the point former NYT science writer Nicholas Wade made in a must-read survey of what we do know about the origins of this pandemic for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.