What Is Gain-of-Function Research and Why Is It Controversial?

Gain-of-function research rarely garners the attention of the masses, but the pandemic thrust the controversial research into the spotlight and some have used it to point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a potential source of the origin of COVID-19.

Backers of the Wuhan lab as the most likely origin point of the pandemic often cite the lab's clearance to do gain-of-function research because it's in the same city where the first case of COVID-19 was reported. The research involves taking a pathogen and mutating it so that it has a new aspect to it. Often, that new aspect of a virus that it's more transmissible or deadly to humans.

It's a controversial research technique because of the possibility of a lab leak, allowing a mutated pathogen to infect local or global populations. Not all labs are qualified to conduct gain-of-function research and those that are have a certain biosafety level that's intended to put in place layers of safeguards to help prevent leaks, although accidents can occur.

The potential for accidents to occur with a dangerous pathogen raised debate over whether the risks of gain-of-function research outweigh the potential benefits.

what is gain of function why controversial
Gain-of-function research involves giving a pathogen a new "ability" and is controversial because if a pathogen is mutated to become more infectious or deadly and then escapes from a lab, it could infect local and global populations. Above, a photo taken through a multi-glazed security window shows a scientist of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research wears a special protective suit while working in a high-security laboratory in Braunschweig, northern Germany, on May 8, 2020. Jens Schlueter/AFP/Getty Images

In 2014, the Obama administration put a moratorium on funding gain-of-function research after researchers announced they made a deadly bird flu virus, H5N1, more contagious in ferrets. The animals were used as a model for how the virus could spread through humans, sparking concerns about its ability to be released into the world.

That moratorium was lifted in 2017, at which point, the government put a new process in place for researchers who want to conduct and receive funding for gain-of-function research.

Some have blamed gain-of-function research for the COVID-19 pandemic, but Dr. Shi Zhengli, a Chinese virologist who, at times, is referred to as the "Bat Woman" for her research on bat coronaviruses, denied her lab did anything improper.

She told the New York Times in June that she has "nothing to fear" because she is "sure that I did nothing wrong." She rejected assertions that the lab was conducting controversial gain-of-function experiments, but many take the comments with a grain of salt due to China being a closed society, and in May, legislators blocked funding for certain research in China.

Two Republican-led amendments to the Endless Frontier Act that passed the Democrat-majority Senate stops taxpayer money from being used to fund the Wuhan Institute of Virology and gain-of-function research in China.

"While many still deny funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, experts believe otherwise. The passage of my amendment ensures that this never happens in the future. No taxpayer money should have ever been used to fund gain-of-function research in Wuhan, and now we permanently have put it to a stop," Senator Rand Paul, a sponsor of one of the amendments, said in a statement at the time.

Paul has been a vocal advocate for an investigation into the Wuhan lab and expressed concerns about whether gain-of-function research should be being conducted anywhere.

Supporters of the research, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cite it as an important part of preventing future pandemics. By studying how a pathogen could become more dangerous to humans, the next pandemic-potential pathogen could be discovered before a crisis occurs, thereby giving the world time to prepare its response.

"The ability to identify such viruses even a few months faster than by conventional surveillance provides critical time to slow or stop an outbreak," Fauci wrote in a 2011 op-ed for The Washington Post. "Identifying threatening viruses can also facilitate the early stages of manufacturing vaccines that protect against such a virus in advance of an outbreak."