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COVID Crisis Post 53: The Dangers of Gain of Function Research.


A quick PSA before today's post:


*Wear a mask. It is not hard to do. I do. I wear a mask like it's my JOB. Because, well, IT KINDA IS. I am a pediatric and adult anesthesiologist. I literally CANNOT do my job without wearing a mask for MANY HOURS per day. And considering I deal with nasty secretions on the daily, especially from those adorable but germ-monsters called kids on the regular and I rarely get sick, they probably do SOMETHING.


In my anesthesia residency and pediatric fellowship training alone, I probably averaged wearing a mask AT LEAST 8-10 hours per day INCLUDING VACATIONS AND WEEKENDS. FOR 4 YEARS.


My immune function did not suffer. Viruses did not get "activated". I did not suffer from CO2 narcosis. I was not suffocating daily.


So shut it and wear a mask. Please and thank you 🙂.


Moving on.


One of the many conspiracy theories circulated involved the virus being engineered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). This has been definitively debunked:


A prominent microbiologist and immunologist Professor Racaniello from Columbia University put it succinctly: “Humans could never have dreamed this up.”


Most of the international scientific community STRONGLY believes this mutation occurred in nature, though accidental release from the WIV, even if a remote possibility, is still a possibility. But like many things in science, there is only less uncertainty, not certainty.


The 1977 H1N1 flu pandemic likely originated from an accidental release from a lab, so it CAN happen.


In addition, the idea this was released as a bioweapon does not make sense since there are many more virulent viruses than SARS-CoV-2 that could have caused much more mass death if that was the goal.


But there is a field called gain-of-function research (GOFR) that has many scientists worried a man-made virus COULD trigger the start of a pandemic in a future.


And honestly, it both fascinates and scares me.


GOFR aims to increase the virulence and/or transmissability of a virus. In other words, it aims to make a virus more deadly and/or contagious.


Yes, you read that correctly.


These researchers study pathogens (in this case, viruses) that have the potential to start pandemics by engineering changes/mutations that could occur spontaneously in nature, allowing the virus to become "enhanced", ie more virulent and/or contagious. Hence, they are referred to as enhanced potential pandemic pathogens, or ePPPs.


Why would anyone do this? Proponents argue through surveillance of and experimentation with viruses in the wild, it may be possible to identify concerning viral mutations that may enable a virus to "jump" to humans and trigger a pandemic. With this knowledge, it would allow the ability to plan and develop medical countermeasures ahead of time to protect society. Vaccines, for example.


These researchers believe the real threat originates in nature, not in a lab.


A bit of history regarding this controversial field of research:


In 2011, two researchers sparked a major controversy when, separately, they submitted research to the journals Science and Nature demonstrating how to generate strains of H5N1 avian flu that were readily transmittable between mammals - and how to make them. Until then, H5N1 had been mainly spread from bird-to-human with a few sporadic human-to-human transmissions with little pandemic potential and quickly contained, though those infected had a mortality rate of >50%.


Because of this controversy, Dr. Fauci, who IS a proponent of GOFR, wrote the following in 2012 to address peoples concerns, with subsequent new regulations put into place for all dual-use research of concern (DURC), which is research that could pose a significant health threat if misused:


However, in 2014, three biohazard failures at major labs involving smallpox, anthrax, and avian flu - none causing disease FORTUNATELY - led the White House to put a moratorium on funding for GOFR. But in 2017, this moratorium was lifted with new guidelines and funding for GOFR involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (ePPP) was allowed to continue. There is concern that the current measures are not strict enough in regulating this research.


So yeah - this is kinda a shit show subject.


The obvious thing is clear: this type of research is VERY dangerous. Many scientists are skeptical of the benefit of this type of research, where a "small" failure in biohazard safety protocols dould lead to millions dead.


And the WIV does participate in GOFR with many viruses, INCLUDING coronaviruses. In 2015, researchers in China and at UNC engineered a chimeric SARS virus using a coronavirus in horseshoe bats, demonstrating a random mutation could occur in these bats with the potential to cause a pandemic.


So yeah. I do not know what to think of all this. But if I want to fight misinformation, then it is my job to provide objective facts and educate, educate, and educate some more.


Controversial or not.


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