In the wake of a virus that killed millions, these Senate witnesses say it’s time to start treating pandemic research as a national security issue.
Three scientists who testified at the first Senate hearing on gain-of-function research on Wednesday said that stronger oversight is needed to make sure research that’s supposed to prevent pandemics isn’t causing them.
The hearing, held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight and led by ranking member Rand Paul of Kentucky, was agreed to by both parties, but only Republican members chose to participate.
Richard Ebright, laboratory director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and hearing witness, said gain-of-function research involves changing pathogens to make them more dangerous. “Gain-of-function research of concern is defined as research activities reasonably anticipated to increase a potential pandemic pathogen’s transmissibility, pathogenicity, ability to overcome immune response, or ability to overcome a vaccine or drug,” Ebright said.
This research has multiple risks, Ebright added, and limited benefits. It results in new health threats because it creates “new potential pandemic pathogens.” He said that “if the new potential pandemic pathogen is released into humans, either accidentally or deliberately, this can cause a pandemic.”
Another risk, according to Ebright, is that once this gain-of-function research is published, people can use it to construct pandemic pathogens from synthetic DNA for well under $10,000. “Publication of the research provides instructions — step-by-step recipes — that can enable a rogue nation, organization, or individual to construct a new pathogen and cause a pandemic,” Ebright said.
Kevin Esvelt, another witness who is a biologist and director of the Sculpting Evolution group at MIT Media Lab, said this is a risk whether scientists are creating potential pandemic viruses through gain-of-function experiments or simply researching naturally occurring ones. He estimated that once the genome of a potential pandemic virus is published, there are 30,000 people with doctorates in the United States alone who would be able to create the virus in a lab.
Trying to identify potential pandemic virus is supposed to help prevent natural pandemics, Esvelt added, but he calculated the research is likely to kill a hundred times as many people as it saves because the likelihood of the research being used maliciously far outweighs the likelihood of it helping prevent a pandemic.
“In the hope of preventing natural pandemics,” Esvalt said, agencies including the National Institutes of Health “seek to identify viruses that could kill as many people as a nuclear weapon, to alert the entire world to what they find, and to publicly share[e] the complete genome sequences of those viruses so that skilled scientists everywhere will be able to make infectious samples.”
Esvelt said that “in the wake of a pandemic that has killed more people than could any thermonuclear explosion,” we need to start addressing pandemics in terms of national security. “We are so used to thinking of pandemics as a health and safety issue that we’ve missed the national security implications of identifying viruses that could be deliberately unleashed to kill millions of people.”
Steven Quay, the CEO of Atossa Therapeutics, said the SARS2 virus that causes Covid-19 “has features consistent with synthetic biology gain-of-function research.” He added that “two features involve acceptable academic gain-of-function research” while one region of the virus “has features of forbidden gain of function research: asymptomatic transmission and immune system evasion.” According to Quay, the permissible gain-of-function features were aspects of research that the United States and Wuhan Institute of Virology had proposed in 2018, while the forbidden features were aspects of research that was already going on at the lab.
Paul said he hopes the scientists’ suggestions can be incorporated into a bipartisan bill for better oversight of research that could lead to pandemics. “I don’t think the people doing the research are able to adequately and objectively regulate themselves,” Paul said. “And I think having a million people die, there should be bipartisan curiosity in this, that we should be able to move forward.”
In response to a question from The Federalist, Paul said that if the GOP wins the Senate and he becomes chairman of the committee, he’ll pursue investigations to hold people accountable for funding this research.