DRegarding unanswered questions about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, both the US Government i scientists have called for a deeper examination of the validity of claims that a virus may have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
Much of the discussion surrounds research on “function gain”. So asked The Conversation David Gillum i Rebecca Moritz, who work closely with virologists on a day – to – day basis to ensure the safety of research, and Sam Weiss Evans i Megan Palmer, who are experts in science and technology policy, to explain what this term means and why this type of research is important.
What does function gain mean?
Any organism can acquire a new skill or property, or “gain” a “function”. This can happen through natural selection or the experiments of a researcher. In research, many different types of experiments generate functions and some pose certain safety issues.
Scientists use various techniques to modify organisms based on the properties of the organism itself and the ultimate goal. Some of these methods involve making changes directly at the genetic code level. Others may involve placing organisms in environments that select functions related to genetic changes.
Function gain can occur in an organism in nature or in the laboratory. Some lab examples include creating more plants resistant to salt and drought or modifying disease vectors to produce mosquitoes that do resistant to the transmission of dengue fever. Function gain can also be useful for environmental reasons, such as modifying them E. coli so you can turn plastic waste into a valuable commodity.
In the current debate around SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the gain in function has a much closer meaning related to the fact that a virus becomes easier to move between humans or becomes more lethal in humans. However, it is important to remember that the term “function gain” encompasses in itself much more than this type of research.
Why would researchers do function gain work on potentially dangerous pathogens?
Function gain experiments can help researchers test scientific theories, develop new technologies, and find treatments for infectious diseases. For example, in 2003, when the file original outbreak of SARS-CoV occurred, the researchers developed a method to study the virus in the laboratory. One of the experiments was to do it make the virus grow in mice so that they could study it. This work led to a model to investigate the virus and test for potential vaccines and treatments.
Research on function gain that focuses on potential pandemic pathogens has been supported by the premise that it will help researchers better understand the evolving pathogenic landscape, be better prepared for a pandemic response, and develop treatments and countermeasures. .
But critics argue that this research to anticipate possible pandemic pathogens does not bring substantial benefits and is not worth the potential risks. And they say getting out of these threats can be achieved by other means: biological research and others. For example, the current pandemic has provided numerous lessons on the social and behavioral dynamics of disease prevention measures, which could lead to new robust research programs on the cultural aspects of pandemic preparedness. Therefore, understanding when the risks of function gain research outweigh the potential benefits and alternatives remains under debate.
What are some examples of research on function gain and risk?
Some potential results of function gain research may include the creation of organisms that are more transmissible or more virulent than the original organism or that avoid current detection methods and available treatments. Other examples include engineering organisms that may circumvent current detection methods and available treatments or grow elsewhere in an organism, such as the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier.
There is no zero risk in performing experiments. Therefore, the question is whether a certain investigation can be conducted on the gain of the function with an acceptable level of security risk mitigation measures. These risk reduction strategies include the use of biocontainment facilities, exposure control plans, strict operational procedures and training, incident response planning, and more. These efforts involve dedication and careful attention to detail at multiple levels of an institution.
Laboratory incidents will still occur. A robust biosafety and biosecurity system, along with an appropriate institutional response, helps ensure that these incidents are inconsequential. The challenge is to ensure that any research carried out (gain of function or not) does not pose irrational risks to researchers, the public and the environment.
To remain a difficult and controversial topic is to determine whether specific experiments with possible pathogens should be performed.
How do experts determine which research on function gains carries too much risk?
There are several ways to answer this question. The first is whether the research aims to develop a biological weapon. He United Nations Convention on Biological Weapons, which entered into force in 1975, prohibits States Parties from developing, producing, storing or acquiring or sharing biological agents, toxins and equipment that have no justification for peaceful or defensive purposes. There should be no research, whether to gain from the function or not, that seeks to develop a biological weapon on purpose.
Another way to answer the question is to focus on the content of the research, rather than on its intent. Through experience, researchers and governments have developed lists of experiments and agencies that need additional monitoring because of their potential safety risks. An example of this arose when influenza researchers took a self-imposed pause in the investigation of the gain in function involving the transmissibility of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses in 2012. imposed a moratorium on employment in 2014. Both moratoriums were lifted in late 2017 after a lengthy debate and study of risks and the development of additional monitoring and notification requirements.
In the last decade, the United States has developed an oversight of research for which it could be used directly nefarious purposes. This includes policies on “dual-use research of concern“(DURC) and policies on”pathogens of pandemic potential”Improved for transmissibility or virulence.
The main point is that our understanding is constantly evolving. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the U.S. government had begun reviewing and updating its policies. This is an open question about what lessons will be learned from this pandemic and how this will reshape our understanding of the value of research on function gain. One thing that is likely to happen, however, is that we will rethink the assumptions we have been making about the relationships between biological research, safety, and society. This can be an opportunity to do just that review and improve biosafety and biosecurity governance systems.
David Gillum, Senior Director of Safety and Environmental Health and Head of Safety, Arizona State University i Rebecca Moritz, Director of Biosafety and responsible officer, Colorado State University