Congress should investigate “gain-of-function” research

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By Bill King for RealClearPolitics

I fear that the investigations Republicans have promised in the House next year will be little more than another round of toxic partisan games. But there is one investigation that Congress should undertake, and that is into so-called gain-of-function investigations.

I suspect most of you, like me, had never heard of gain-of-function research before the pandemic. What we learned during the pandemic is that scientists around the world are routinely tinkering with the genomes of viruses to see how the changes induced will affect the replication of the virus (infectivity) and the effects it has on its host (lethality). to influence.

Such research has apparently been going on for decades and is routinely funded by governments, including ours.

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Within weeks of the COVID-19 virus emerging in China near the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), many began to question whether the virus was created through gain-of-function research and somehow escaped the labs from WIV. Recently analyzed Chinese documents from the beginning of the pandemic seem to suggest that the virus may have originated from WIV. To many, the proposition that the novel coronavirus just happened to occur naturally within a few hundred meters of the WIV facility seemed too coincidental.

But in February 2020, barely three months after the virus was sequenced, 27 scientists signed a statement in the medical journal The Lancet, stating unequivocally that the virus had evolved naturally and that any suggestion to the contrary was quackery. and a conspiracy theory. Their explanation quickly became the accepted orthodoxy for much of the world’s scientific community and virtually all mainstream media.

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However, as time went on, the circumstances surrounding the origin of that statement came under scrutiny. In a 2021 Vanity Fair article, investigative journalist Katherine Eban revealed that the statement was organized by a scientist named Peter Daszak. That statement concluded with a statement from the scientists who signed it that “we have no competing interests.” However, Eban reported in a follow-up article that Daszak was the director of EcoHealth Alliance, which had received a $3.7 million grant from the NIH for gain-of-function research in 2014 and had a $600,000 sub-grant given to the WIV. .

I wrote to the email address reserved for the statement in the Lancet post, asking a number of questions about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the letter and the statement on “competing interests.” I also contacted two of the scientists who signed the letter and asked for an interview about the statement. I got no responses.

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Job Gain Research questions predate COVID. In fact, there has been a vigorous debate about the potential risks and benefits dating back to at least 2011. In 2014, a group of 300 prominent scientists, led by Harvard’s highly regarded epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, signed an alarming statement about risks associated with gain of function research.

The academic controversy caused the Obama administration to issue a moratorium on gain-of-function research, but it included a blanket exception for studies “urgently necessary to protect public health or national security.” According to Eban’s reporting, the exception quickly became a glaring loophole that essentially rendered the rule useless: The controversial investigation mostly continued unabated.

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The Trump administration has scrapped the moratorium in favor of a complex review process. But that process was usually conducted outside of public opinion or even significant peer review, which left many critics, including Lipsitch, still wary.

The debate over the origins of COVID is still raging today and has sadly become politicized, with Democrats and Republicans generally rallying behind the natural and lab leak theories, respectively. In August 2021, the National Intelligence Council released an unclassified report in response to an order from President Biden to investigate the origin of the virus. The report stated that the intelligence community had not reached a conclusion and that the origins would probably never be known without more cooperation from the Chinese government. Of course, the more time passes, the less likely the mystery will ever be solved.

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While we would all like to know how the pandemic started, the simple fact is that it power coming from gains of function research gone wrong makes it imperative to conduct a detailed study of the risks and potential benefits of this type of research. Of all the things we regulate, tinkering with viruses to make them more contagious and deadly should definitely be at the top of the list. Congress needs to pass laws that precisely regulate what Rutgers professor Richard Ebright described to Katherine Eban as “looking for a gas leak with a lit match” and not leave it to executive orders.

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Congress should also investigate what appears to have been a concerted effort to quell any inquiry into the legitimate questions about the origins of COVID in the early days of the pandemic. For example, the signatories of the Lancet statement would have to be subpoenaed and questioned about what was almost certainly a false statement of “no competing interests” by at least one of the signatories. (The criticism regarding potential conflicts of interest isn’t just coming from the right: Highly progressive Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs disbanded a group he founded to study the origins of COVID, citing conflicts of interest. Interestingly, Daszak was part of the group Sachs disbanded.)

I don’t know if House Republicans can hold such hearings without turning it into a carnival show. But hopefully they will rise above partisan instincts and provide much-needed answers for the American people.

Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.

Bill King is a businessman and lawyer, former opinion columnist, and member of the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle. He has served in a number of appointed and elected positions, including mayor of his hometown. He writes on a wide range of public policy and political issues. Bill is the author of “Unapologetically Moderate” and currently serves as co-chair of the Forward Party of Texas.

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