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Gain-of-function experiments: Putting meaning back into words

Posted by on November 18, 2014

Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, professor of virology at the Institut Pasteur, will be speaking at Policy Lates on Thursday 20 November: Dodging a Biological Bullet: What can we learn from the US and Europe about biosecurity?

Simon Wain-Hobson (2)The US pause and de facto moratorium on gain-of-function research on the influenza, SARS and MERS viruses provides a welcome opportunity for the virologists. It should not be wasted.

First, we must put meaning back into words. Gain-of-function (GOF) was coined to efface the negative connotations of ‘Dual Use Research of Concern’. GOF is not a run of the mill experiment. It means deliberately selecting for viral variants so that the resulting strain is more dangerous for humans. This can mean stabilizing the virus making it more infectious, increasing its pathogenicity, or changing the transmission route of the virus. For example, the bird flu virus, H7N1, has been engineered so that it is very probably transmissible between humans, and is 30 times more lethal than Spanish flu in an animal model!

Humans are susceptible to and transmit only three influenza A virus strains, H1N1, H2N2 and H3N2. This is the data accumulated over 100 years. There are over 127 avian influenza viruses and many of these can spill over and infect humans and even cause death, much like rabies. In fact there is a real possibility that they could develop into viruses that are transmitted from human to human and thus start the next human pandemic. So far only the three viruses mentioned here have been able to do this. We are massively exposed to the dog H3N8 flu virus, but so far it hasn’t jumped to humans.

virusGOF research claims it will prepare us for a pandemic by helping to generate preventive vaccines and drugs, and help interpret viral mutations. However there are cogent scientific arguments to disprove these claims.

GOF virus research constitutes a hiatus. From the time of Pasteur and Koch we have beaten the hell out of microbes and have succeeded remarkably. Variola and rinderpest viruses are now extinct. GOF virology increases the danger level with very few tangible returns. In a risk benefit analysis where do the chips lie? We do not know as no one has bothered to perform one. A lab made virus runs into issues of ethics, responsibility and liability that the virologists cannot handle. Indeed, they are so caught up in the furiously competitive science scene that they cannot take time off and think about GOF research. This is why outsiders are crucial to resolving the present controversy.

Hopefully the pause will help the virologists listen to others and hear the concerns of society. And if it takes a year or more so be it.

Thursday 20 November: Policy Lates: Dodging a Biological Bullet: What can we learn from the US and Europe about biosecurity?
This event is free but please register your place in advance.

Read more on our blog:
What are we pausing? by Professor Michael J Imperiale, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan
Dual-use for Dummies by Dr Supatra Marsh, BBSRC Policy Fellow at the Society of Biology

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