Year after year, influenza spreads like wildfire throughout the world, harming and even killing many people. Despite the precautions we take to stop the spread of the flu, it still spreads. How can that be?
Gain-of-function research studies investigate influenzas and other transmissible pathogens to determine how they spread through populations so quickly and easily. In these investigations, researchers genetically engineer weaker strains of pathogens into stronger and more easily transferable infectious agents in laboratories. In doing so, they learn how these pathogens are able to gain strength on their own in the natural environment. If researchers learn how to grow deadly viruses, they should then be able to figure out how to prevent their spread and destroy them.
Gain-of-function research has sparked debate and controversy for years. Opponents of the research believe there are safer alternatives to engineering these infectious agents in labs. Gain-of-function opponents fear that these engineered pathogens, some of which are capable of airborne spreading, can escape the labs and infect many people, even kill them. There have been multiple biosecurity problems in federal labs where these dangerous viruses were not safely contained.
Thankfully, no one has been infected from any of these incidents, but concerns remain. One example reported by Chemical & Engineering News includes “a highly contagious avian flu virus [that] was accidentally shipped between federal labs without proper precautions.”
This controversy has led the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to freeze all government funding for gain-of-function research. During this halt in funding, a two-part review of gain-of-function research will be conducted to develop a new policy regarding its regulation. First, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) will review the risks and benefits of current gain-of-function research as compared to safer alternatives and draft a new policy. Second, the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies will hold two symposia to discuss the risks and benefits of gain-of-function research and review the NSABB’s draft of a new policy.
While gain-of-function research is on hold, scientists such as Ron Fouchier Ph.D. and Yoshihio Kawaoka, Ph.D., will not be able to continue their already-successful research. The two researchers have reported that their research has already helped raise awareness and prevent the spread of the H5N1 virus. By genetically engineering a mutant H5N1 virus that spreads through mammals without direct contact, they discovered that the virus has the capability of causing a deadly pandemic. Before this study, experts believed H5N1 could not cause a pandemic so vaccine stockpiles were not considered necessary.
Fouchier and Kawaoka believe that their research cannot be conducted with seasonal influenza viruses, a safer alternative to gain-of-function research.
In an article by Robert Roos, who is affiliated with the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy of the University of Minnesota, Kawaoka has stated that viruses such as H5N1 “replicate substantially faster, and cell and organ tropisms are different from seasonal influenza viruses. Thus, relying solely on the data obtained from … seasonal influenza viruses can be highly misleading and, in fact, can be harmful.”