by Brenée Goforth
Communications Associate, John Locke Foundation
RealClearScience published a piece by our Dr. Don van der Vaart on the Coronavirus last week. The piece focuses on a controversial research methodology called ‘gain of function’ (GOF) virology. In particular, Dr. van der Vaart focuses on the research methods of UNC Chapel Hill researcher Dr. Ralph Baric. Dr. van der Vaart writes:
In lay terms, Baric’s approach to predicting future pandemics and seeking cures for particularly virulent strains of pandemic viruses is, first, to create those virulent viruses. By most accounts, the enhanced transmission effectiveness of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID appears to have evolved naturally, precisely what Baric and others hope to anticipate by creating viruses and enhancing their transmission effectiveness — what’s called ‘gain of function’ (GOF).
Dr. Baric’s work has recently garnered attention due to the viral coronavirus outbreak. His work is intended to get ahead of viral contagions by synthesizing them in a laboratory and learning how to address them before nature creates these mutations on its own. However, some scientists warn this practice could be dangerous. Dr. van der Vaart writes:
Other scientists disagree, saying “…there is nothing in GOF virology that will help us predict a pandemic or help us develop more effective vaccines. It is tantamount to reckless playing with fire.” This critic refers to researchers in GOF as being part of a small group of virologists that “caused an uproar” when their work became known to the scientific community. Questions arose about biosafety, whether the work had scientific value, and how much should be published with an eye on preventing bioterrorists from learning from the group.
These concerns grew louder as connections were drawn between Dr. Baric’s work and the Wuhan province. Dr. van der Vaart writes:
While available evidence strongly suggests that it originated in the wild and wasn’t created in a lab, it still is a remote possibility that it was brought into a lab and then escaped…
Two researchers that worked with Professor Baric when he created the chimeric, or hybridized virus, in 2015, were from the Wuhan Virology Institute blamed by the Trump administration for the current outbreak. China at least partially funded the work. There is no question of the technology having been stolen, but some have questioned whether U.S. universities should be in such financial arrangements for research with China. Others argue researchers collaborating with scientists from other countries is a benefit to all. If the Wuhan Virology Institute embarked on their own efforts to develop novel viruses with GOF for enhanced transmission effectiveness, that is their prerogative.
That said, it is important to note the most common consensus is still that the current strain of coronavirus we are dealing with is a result of a natural mutation.