By Carl Zimmer and James Gorman, June 20, 2021
At a Senate hearing on efforts to combat Covid-19 last month, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky asked Dr. Anthony S. Fauci whether the National Institutes of Health had funded “gain-of-function” research on coronaviruses in China.
“Gain-of-function research, as you know, is juicing up naturally occurring animal viruses to infect humans,” the senator said.
Dr. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, flatly rejected the claim: “Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect, that the N.I.H. has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute.”
This exchange, and the bit of scientific jargon at the heart of it, has gained traction in recent weeks, usually by people suggesting that the coronavirus was engineered, rather than having jumped from animals to humans, the explanation favored by most experts on coronaviruses. The uproar has also drawn attention back to a decade-long debate among scientists over whether certain gain-of-function research is too risky to allow.
Spurred by some contested bird flu experiments in 2012, the U.S. government adjusted its policies for oversight of certain types of pathogen studies. But some critics in the scientific community say that the policy is overly restrictive and that its enforcement has been far from transparent.
The stakes of the debate could not be higher. Too little research on emerging viruses will leave us unprepared for future pandemics. But too little attention to the safety risks will increase the chances that an experimental pathogen may escape a lab through an accident and cause an outbreak of its own.
Sorting out the balance of risks and benefits of the research has proved over the years to be immensely challenging. And now, the intensity of the politics and rhetoric over the lab leak theory threatens to push detailed science policy discussions to the sidelines.
“It’s just going to make it harder to get back to a serious debate,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has urged the government to be more transparent about its support of gain-of-function research.