Should Researchers Seek Out Deadly Viruses to Find Cures?

May 16, 2020
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The highly contagious nature of COVID-19 has not only focused Americans on public health issues, but on the role of university researchers in the fight against contagions. While Dr. Ralph Baric of UNC Chapel Hill has for years been well known among academics for his research into viruses, his work has now become the subject of mainstream reporting.

It has also become controversial.

Our Ancients taught us that if you want peace, you should prepare for war. In today’s context, preparing for war may be what Professor Baric is doing every day. That makes some uncomfortable because his research forces us to grapple with this question: Must we create a deadly virus in a lab in order to figure out how to respond to such a virus if it evolves in nature?

When a pathogenic virus mutates into a form readily transmitted to humans, it has the potential to cause a pandemic. In lay terms, Baric’s approach to predicting future pandemics and seeking cures for particularly virulent strains of pandemic viruses is, first, to create those virulent viruses. By most accounts, the enhanced transmission effectiveness of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID appears to have evolved naturally, precisely what Baric and others hope to anticipate by creating viruses and enhancing their transmission effectiveness — what’s called ‘gain of function’ (GOF).

Other scientists disagree, saying “…there is nothing in GOF virology that will help us predict a pandemic or help us develop more effective vaccines. It is tantamount to reckless playing with fire.” This critic refers to researchers in GOF as being part of a small group of virologists that “caused an uproar” when their work became known to the scientific community. Questions arose about biosafety, whether the work had scientific value, and how much should be published with an eye on preventing bioterroists from learning from the group.

So is Baric’s research in GOF controversial for precisely the reason it could be so important?

The debate isn’t new. In 2014, President Obama suspended all research in the U.S. on GOF in viruses so pros and cons could be considered. The arguments on both sides are well expressed by Albert Osterhuis of Erasmus University: “You could create a monster. But it’s a monster that nature could produce as well.” Other scientists have called for alternatives to achieve the same result.

Professor Baric’s work at the time of the suspension was essentially grandfathered. In 2015, he and co-workers published an article describing a laboratory-synthesized coronavirus with the ability to jump from mammal to mammal. Translation: a coronavirus with a gain of function was created in his lab.

Within a week, the same prestigious journal that published Baric’s discovery published a comment reopening the GOF debate. Once again,  Professor Simon Wain-Hobson of the prestigious Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris, noted Baric’s team had created a novel virus that “grows remarkably well” in human cells. “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory.”

Unfortunately, something very like this has come devastatingly true in the context of the novel coronavirus. While available evidence strongly suggests that it originated in the wild and wasn't created in a lab, it is still possible that it was brought into a lab and then escaped.

Professor Baric would argue the present pandemic is precisely why his research should continue. His work is designed to develop the cure. Indeed, Baric is now developing a treatment for COVID-19.

It’s welcome news. Yet questions remain. Two researchers that worked with Professor Baric when he created the chimeric, or hybridized virus, in 2015, were from the Wuhan Virology Institute blamed by the Trump administration for the current outbreak. China at least partially funded the work. There is no question of the technology having been stolen, but some have questioned whether U.S. universities should be in such financial arrangements for research with China. Others argue researchers collaborating with scientists from other countries is a benefit to all. If the Wuhan Virology Institute embarked on their own efforts to develop novel viruses with GOF for enhanced transmission effectiveness, that is their prerogative.

It has generally been established that the current virus was a natural mutation and not the product of bioengineering. A few experts still question that. Nobel prize-winning virologist Luc Montagnier suggested the novel virus was at least partially fabricated in the Wuhan Institute in an effort to develop a vaccine against HIV/AIDS. The debate is a red herring. Researchers in Wuhan were doing what Professor Baric does, which is to create novel viruses, either synthetically or by allowing natural mutation, with the goal of developing cures for them.

Professor Baric’s work could lead to a highly effective treatment for this virus. But risk is quite real. If the virus is shown to have been studied in the lab and escaped, the horrific dangers predicted by critics of GOF work may have, indeed, come true.

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