- US and China were involved in most gain- and loss-of-function research
- One-quarter of the research was related to vaccine development and testing
- READ MORE: What is gain of function research?
No country in the world has done more controversial virus-tinkering research than America.
A first-of-its-kind study analyzed ‘gain-of-function’ experiments – which involve making pathogens more infectious or deadly – performed globally since 2000.
Advocates say the tests help science get ahead of future outbreaks, but critics say the risks of a leak outweigh any potential benefit.
The study found there have been more than 7,000 GOF or loss of function studies – which make viruses weaker – in the past two decades, with the US involved in more than half, followed by China (21 percent).
Many scientists believe Covid was the product of a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, where scientists were carrying out gain-of-function experiments on bat coronaviruses closely related to Covid using American research grants.
The above map shows the percentages of gain- and loss-of-function research each country was involved in
The study, conducted by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, used artificial intelligence to scan 159,000 scientific literatures to find where and how often GOF and LOF studies are conducted.
They found approximately 7,000 studies included this type of research and randomly chose 1,000 to manually sort through, leaving them with 488 publications.
Of this literature, 25 percent involved only GOF work, 29 percent involved both GOF and LOF and 46 percent involved only LOF research.
Exploring which pathogens were most tested, the team found 64 percent were viruses. Nine percent of those viruses were those that belonged to the Coronaviridae family, which includes coronaviruses. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is a new strain of coronavirus in the family of Coronaviridae.
Other viruses studied included flu (21 percent) and herpes (14 percent).
And 24 percent of the studies were related to vaccine development or testing.
The Georgetown team also looked at the risk each pathogen posed to humans and found only a small fraction of the studies included pathogens dangerous enough to require the strictest biosafety precautions in labs.
Most of the pathogens, 58 percent, posed a moderate risk to humans. One-quarter of pathogens explored were described as ‘agents that may cause serious and potentially lethal infections.’
One percent of studies involved the riskiest of pathogens ‘that pose a high individual risk of life threatening disease by infectious aerosols and for which no treatment is available.’ These include Ebola and smallpox.
Examples of gain-of-function research the team found included infecting mice with the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause pneumonia.
This bacteria does not normally infect mice naturally, but researchers used it to investigate how the bacteria interacts with a host in an animal system.
A gain- and loss-of-function study that occurred simultaneously saw scientists alter multiple strains of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus, which can cause lung infections, to study what causes the fungus to become resistant to antifungal treatments.
Some of the new strains scientists created grew faster in mice than in animals infected with the original strain.
The politicized debate over Covid’s origins has made the topic of GOF research a point of serious contention, with one camp speculating the virus originated in animals and another declaring the virus originated in a lab performing GOF studies.
Anna Puglisi, a biotechnologist and policy specialist at Georgetown, who co-authored the report siad: ‘There’s so much discussion and hype about gain-of-function research, but what does it really look like?’
Getting an answer to that question is ‘the only way you can start to understand what the true risk for both not regulating it and over-regulating is,’ she added