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Gain of Function Research: Ethics: Lab Leaks and World Casualty Lessons of COVID-19 from China?

WebdeskJul 27, 2021, 01:29 PM IST

Gain of Function Research: Ethics: Lab Leaks and World Casualty Lessons of COVID-19 from China?

                                                                                                                                                    T. S. Chandrashekar


In vaccine development, gain-of-function research is conducted, hoping to gain a head start on a virus and develop a vaccine or therapeutic before it emerges. 


According to World Health Organization, globally, as of Jul 26 2021, there have been 193,798,265 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 4,158,041 deaths. As of Jul 24 2021, 3,646,968,156 vaccine doses have been administered. In India, total case of COVID-19 were 3,14,11,262, deaths were 4,20,967 and 43,51,96,001 doses have been administered. Every part of the world has been affected. World Economy was severely constrained with lockdowns. People have lost jobs, and friends were lost. Who did this? How did this virus spread? Was it a leak or man-made, or for military research? It has become a billion-dollar question.


Gain-of-function research (GoF research or GoFR) is medical research that alters an organism or disease in a way that increases pathogenesis, transmissibility, or host range (the types of hosts that a microorganism can infect). In vaccine development, gain-of-function research is conducted, hoping to gain a head start on a virus and develop a vaccine or therapeutic before it emerges. The term "gain of function is sometimes applied more narrowly to refer to research which could enable a pandemic-potential pathogen to replicate more quickly or cause more harm in humans or other closely related mammals."


Some forms of gain-of-function research (specifically work which involves certain select agent pathogens) carry inherent biosafety and biosecurity risks and are thus also referred to as dual-use research of concern (DURC). It is said that lab accidents are quite common, even in supposedly safe facilities. Every SARS case since the original epidemic has been because of lab leaks. The last known person who died of smallpox was infected because of a lab incident in Britain in 1978. Foot and mouth disease, which devastated livestock and caused a massive crisis in Britain in 2001, escaped from a drainage pipe leak at an English lab with the highest biosafety rating, BSL-4. The global H1N1 flu epidemic of 1977, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, was caused by a lab leak.


In the Gain-of-function research done in North Carolina, most notably at the lab of UNC-Chapel Hill researcher Ralph Baric, Baric noted in his paper that the large safety precautions are taken for his research, including the fact that it was done in a biosafety level 3 lab, air-locked to keep potential airborne toxins from escaping. But even at Baric’s Lab, accidents have happened, including a researcher being bitten by an infected mouse.


“Gain-of-function research is not limited to viruses. A search of NIH grants to North Carolina institutions shows dozens of projects that mention the term gain-of-function, including ones at N.C. State University looking at pig models for colorectal cancer, and one at Duke University is studying how the heart repairs itself after heart attacks.”


Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch has argued that gain-of-function research provides only tiny benefits relative to the risks associated with potential lab leaks. In 2014 the Obama administration put a moratorium on the funding of gain-of-function research. This ban only applied to gain-of-function research that was being conducted on the SARS, MERS and influenza viruses. The US administration lifted this restriction in 2017. However, in May, President Joe Biden called for a more thorough investigation of the pandemic's origins, with the potential of the virus being leaked from a lab being re-examined.


How did the COVID-19 spread is getting examined day by day after a World Health Organization team visited Wuhan this year, but Chinese officials provided little useful information. Even WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus, typically a Chinese ally, criticized Beijing for lack of transparency. He called for an audit of laboratories in Wuhan as part of the origin's investigation next phase, but Beijing rejected the idea. Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission, said China could not accept the World Health Organization's plan for the second phase of a study into the origins of COVID-19. "It is impossible for us to accept such an origin- tracing plan," he said at a news conference called to address the COVID-19 origins issue.


But the WHO chief further said he hoped for better cooperation and access to data from China.


"We are asking China to be transparent, open and cooperate, especially on the information, raw data that we asked for in the early days of the pandemic." His words were echoed at the same virtual news conference by Germany's health minister, Jens Spahn, who called on China to intensify cooperation in the search for the origin of the virus. The Whole World Leaders are demanding the same from the shores of Australia to Africa to Asia and Europe to Russia.


“American experts visited Wuhan lab in 2017 and 2018 and warned about a dangerous mix of subpar safety standards and infectious bat coronaviruses. In January, the State Department published a fact sheet warning that several WIV researchers had been sick with Covid-like symptoms in the fall of 2019. It also noted that the group had been conducting gain-of-function research that could enable viruses to infect a new species while collaborating with the People’s Liberation Army. And the WIV’s critical virus databases were taken offline, ostensibly for security purposes.”


At last, one can say that this Gain of Function research has long been controversial, with many scientists saying the risks outweigh any potential insights from it. But democratic or any Nation can do the research, but it should be with responsibility. Research done with a carelessness for military benefit in mind will be affected. This happened with COVID-19. The consequences of a lab accident which is horrific, dirty, dangerous and difficult to digest. So a future gain-of-function research might well produce far more dangerous viruses. So, does a continuation of widespread gain-of-function research pose unacceptable risks to the public?


There should be open transparency in lab’s throughout the world with full access to any Country affected. Otherwise, few nations, for their narrow national interest and security, hide leaks and controls the information. This is not good for an interconnected and interlinked world. They want Markets of the world, but they do not want to share the Lab Details. What are they hiding, and for whose gain is this research? This research has killed more people than World Wars then. Can this nation be responsible for deaths? Will the UN, WHO and the democratic world bring this nation to justice? On Feb 3 2020, writing his opinion in Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead said, "China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia. Its financial markets may be even more dangerous than its wildlife markets." What does it mean? Truth has to be known to the world as our Brother Sister Mother Father Friends and Relatives have become victims of their carelessness? For now, we need COVID-19 Origin Truth? So responsibility lies with all….."


(The writer is a spokesperson, Political Analyst, Columnist, International Affairs & Korea Expert)



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