Experts at hearing sought by Sen. Rand Paul say gain-of-function virus research should be subject to more government oversight

Sen. Rand Paul (Photo by Jabin Botsford, The Washington Post)

Academic and drug-industry experts told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Aug. 3 that more government oversight is needed for gain-of-function research, “which is used to better understand which pathogens have the potential to become a pandemic,” Jessica Karins reports for Inside Health Policy.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky pushed for the hearing by the emerging threats subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The top Republican on the subcommittee, he has said gain-of-function research funded by the National Institutes of Health could have caused the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, most witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing “maintained that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, came from nature and not a lab,” Kairns reports. Still, they said Congress should work to strengthen reviews of research proposals at the NIH and the Agency for International Development. “They also asserted that such research should be overseen by a single, independent federal agency that does not fund or conduct research.”
“Gain-of-function research . . . seeks to enhance the transmissibility or other qualities of a pathogen,” Karins explains. “It is usually employed with the intention of better understanding pandemics and to possibly identify agents that could cause a pandemic in the future. Some types of gain-of-function research pose concerns about safety and security because they could enhance an agent’s ability to pass to humans and cause an epidemic. . . . Central to the controversy over the origins of Covid-19 is whether gain-of-function research was conducted and funded by NIH at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located near the area where Covid-19 was first identified.”
The scientific consensus so far is that the virus came from animals in a street market in Wuhan. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said NIH did not fund gain-of-function research in Wuhan, but Paul said at the hearing, “I maintain that the techniques that the NIH funded in Wuhan may have, or could have, been used to create Covid-19. The American people deserve to know how this pandemic started, and whether the NIH-funded research that could have caused this pandemic.”
Paul has said that if Republicans take control of the Senate, he will chair a committee and conduct an investigation of the matter. His wife, Kelley Paul, said in campaigning for him in West Kentucky last weekend, “He will subpoena every last document of Dr. Fauci’s and get to the bottom of what happened.”
Sen. Paul said at the hearing that regardless of the source of Covid-19, it’s important to increase government oversight of gain-of-function research because of its risks, and witnesses agreed that it “should be subject to a much greater degree of oversight, adding that it provides little benefit compared to its risks,” Karins reports.

Kevin Esvelt, assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, said scientists disagree on whether the Wuhan experiments were gain-of-function. “Nevertheless, he said, scientists should continue to regard research involving pandemic-capable pathogens as particularly risky, and there should be additional security measures in place when conducting such research,” because such research is more likely to cause a pandemic than prevent one, because pathogens being studied through such research can leak from the lab, Karins reports.

In addition to lab leaks, publication of some research information could allow a rogue nations, organizations or individuals to create a pathogen, said Richard Ebright, laboratory director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University. He said gain-of-function research is a very small part of virology and is unnecessary because it does not contribute to the development of vaccines and medications.
“Steven Quay, CEO of Atossa Therapeutics, agreed that gain-of-function research does not help prevent pandemics, but he believes efforts to fully ban gain-of-function research would go too far,” Karins reports. “Quay recommended such research be reviewed by a structure similar to that of institutional review boards that review experimentation involving human subjects.”
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