The debate surrounding gain of function research has been ongoing for years, with no clear consensus in sight. Gain of function research involves manipulating the DNA of microbes to give them abilities they didn’t have before. While the majority of this research helps humanity with little risk, a sub-field of gain of function work involves creating enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (ePPPs). These ePPPs are typically variants of well-known viruses such as Ebola or avian influenza that have been engineered to be more transmissible or more deadly.
The argument in favor of developing ePPPs is that this research could help us prepare for future pandemics by allowing us to jumpstart treatments and potentially save lives. Critics, on the other hand, argue that the knowledge gained by studying these dangerous viruses isn’t worth the risk of creating them in the first place. The potential for a catastrophic lab leak remains a concern, even with the numerous safety features built into labs that work with dangerous pathogens.
In 1979, a seemingly minor mistake in a Soviet biological weapons lab led to the largest documented outbreak of inhalation anthrax on record, resulting in at least 64 deaths. A lab worker had removed a clogged air filter in the ventilation system and didn’t replace it, causing deadly anthrax powder to float out into the sky for hours. While the Soviet bioweapons program was a violation of international law, these days it's not just state-sponsored bioweapons programs that keep biosecurity experts up at night.
The potential for a lab leak of an ePPP is especially concerning because these viruses are engineered to be more transmissible or deadly. Even the most advanced technology has room for error, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of an ePPP leak have convinced many scientists that this kind of research should stop altogether.
If gain of function research continues, minimizing the risk of a lab leak is critical. One suggestion is to create an international database of leaks, near-misses, and fixes taken that would help labs adapt their protocols to minimize human errors. A robust, well-funded pandemic early warning system would also help protect us from any disease outbreak – whether it comes from a lab leak or a natural spillover.
Developing the kind of global standards and databases necessary for these changes would be difficult, requiring unprecedented international collaboration and transparency. However, it is necessary because pandemics do not care about borders or politics. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that a disease outbreak in one part of the world can quickly become a global threat.
While the debate surrounding gain of function research continues, one thing is clear – the potential for a catastrophic lab leak is a risk that must be minimized. Developing international standards and databases to track lab safety incidents and a robust pandemic early warning system would help protect us from any disease outbreak – whether it comes from a lab leak or a natural spillover. The future of gain of function research may be uncertain, but the need to prioritize safety is not.
Another way to minimize the risk of lab leaks is to improve the culture within the scientific community. In recent years, there has been growing concern about the intense competition and pressure to publish results that can sometimes push researchers to take shortcuts or overlook safety protocols. Scientists who work with dangerous pathogens must be able to speak up and report concerns without fear of retribution. This requires a culture shift that values safety over speed and recognizes the importance of responsible research practices.
In conclusion, the potential benefits and risks of gain of function research continue to be debated by experts in the field. While some argue that this type of research could help us prepare for future pandemics, others warn of the catastrophic consequences of a lab leak. If we continue down this path, minimizing the risk of a lab leak is critical, and will require international collaboration, improved safety protocols, and a cultural shift within the scientific community.