Is Sen. Rand Paul or Dr. Fauci Right About Gain-of-Function Research Funding in Wuhan?

Experts are siding with Dr. Anthony Fauci in the dispute with Sen. Rand Paul over whether experiments done on bat coronaviruses conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology constituted gain of function research.

At a hearing on Tuesday, Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, and Fauci engaged in a heated exchange about a study that involved Chinese scientists substituting spike proteins in bat coronaviruses to gain new insight into the origin of SARS. Partially sponsored by the National Institute of Health, Paul saw the research as proof Fauci lied to Congress, a felony the public health expert vehemently denied he was guilty of.

Robert Garry, a virologist and professor at Tulane University, described the experiments as being a study as to whether the bat coronaviruses could infect humans. What they didn't do, he told Newsweek, was make the viruses "any better" at infecting people, which would be necessary for gain-of-function research.

Gain-of-function is a controversial research method that involves manipulating pathogens to give them a new aspect, such as making viruses more transmissible or dangerous to humans. Dr. Vincent Racaniello, a virologist at Columbia University, said the "key" to the research not being gain-of-function is the viruses the researchers started with could already infect human cells because they could bind to the ACE2 receptor, a protein that serves as the entry point for coronaviruses to infect human cells.

"If you started with a bat virus that could not infect human cells and then gave it the ability to do so, that would be a gain-of-function. But that is not what they did there," Racaniello said. "They didn't give it a new property."

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Experts are siding with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, over Sen. Rand Paul on the issue of whether experiments in 2017 constituted gain-of-function. [COMBO] Fauci and Paul are seen at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. Pool/Getty Images

Fauci told Newsweek he backed Racaniello's explanation that the experiments aren't gain-of-function because they didn't give the viruses any new abilities, calling it "very terse and accurate."

During Tuesday's hearing, Paul argued the work did constituted gain-of-function because they created "novel, artificial viruses" that could infect humans out of animal viruses." He cited an article that quoted Richard Ebright, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at Rutgers University, saying the experiment "epitomizes" gain-of-function research.

"The Wuhan lab used NIH funding to construct novel chimeric SARS-related coronaviruses able to infect human cells and laboratory animals," Ebright told the National Review in May. "This is high-risk research that creates new potential pandemic pathogens [i.e., potential pandemic pathogens that exist only in a lab, not in nature]. This research matches—indeed epitomizes—the definition of 'gain of function research of concern' for which federal funding was 'paused' in 2014-2017."

The Obama administration enacted a moratorium on certain gain-of-function research in 2014 after researchers announced they were able to modify the H5N1 avian influenza strain to become highly transmissible between ferrets. It raised concerns about an accidental lab leak leading to a global health crisis because ferrets were the animals that most closely mimicked a human response.

Theories that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a Wuhan laboratory reignited the debate as to whether the risks gain-of-function pose outweigh the potential benefits. It wouldn't be unprecedented to put a global ban on researching certain viruses because after smallpox was eradicated in 1979, an international agreement was reached that remaining stocks of the virus would be destroyed our housed in one of two secure laboratories. Since the early 1980s, no laboratory has had access to the virus that causes smallpox.

"When all the heat of the pandemic dies down would it be appropriate to take a look at some of this guidance and reconsider it? Sure, it would be foolish not to," Garry said.

However, Garry added that crossing the line between restricting dangerous gain-of-function experiments and basic virology where scientists "swap bits and pieces of viruses" could hinder the worlds' ability to study viruses that could be harmful to humans and "know what's out there."

Obama's moratorium was lifted in 2017 and a process of approving and funding gain-of-function research was put in place. At Tuesday's hearing, Fauci said the experiments included in the 2017 paper were judged by "qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain-of-function."

"You do not know what you are talking about quite frankly and I want to say that officially," Fauci told Paul.

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Sen. Rand Paul accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of lying to Congress when he said the National Institute of Health never funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit to the institute in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on Feb. 3. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

The senator pushed back, calling the experiments a means of making the virus more transmissible to humans. Dr. Gregory Gray, a Duke University professor, disagreed with Paul's assessment that the experiments attempted to increase the virus' transmissibility. He characterized it as "lifting the hood" on a virus to see how it works.

Paul announced after the hearing he planned on asking the Department of Justice to open a criminal inquiry into Fauci for lying to Congress when he said the NIH did not fund gain-of-function research in Wuhan. A felony that comes with up to five years in prison, Fauci refused to agree with the senator that anything he said to legislators was untrue.

Brett Giroir, former President Donald Trump's coronavirus testing czar, sided with Paul and told Fox & Friends scientists created "Frankenstein viruses" to see if they could infect human cells. He acknowledged it may not be "technically 'gain-of-function research'" but accused Fauci of muddying the definition to his own advantage.

Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at King's College in London, admitted it was a "grey area" in a Twitter thread explaining the debate. However, he reasoned that the grant was determined not to involve gain-of-function research because scientists were replacing a function in a virus that already had the ability to infect humans rather than giving that ability to a virus that could not infect humans.

Regardless of how it's viewed in retrospect, Neil argued that at the time the grant was awarded, the NIH didn't think it constituted gain-of-function research and therefore Fauci was not lying.