No More Funding Chinese Gain-of-Function Research
Yesterday the Senate passed an amendment put forward by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would ban funding of gain-of-function research in China. The amendment is co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS), Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).
This targeted moratorium on funding in Paul’s amendment comes as the lab-leak hypothesis concerning the origins of COVID-19 finally receives mainstream attention and acceptance.
“We don’t know whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally,” Paul said in a statement. “While many still deny funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, experts believe otherwise. The passage of my amendment ensures that this never happens in the future. No taxpayer money should have ever been used to fund gain-of-function research in Wuhan, and now we permanently have put it to a stop.”
In committee hearings, Paul engaged in a number of heated exchanges with Anthony Fauci regarding the National Institutes of Health’s support for gain-of-function research in general and in China in particular. Fauci denied such funding had occurred, despite the well-documented funding by the NIH of virologist Ralph Baric, who partnered with Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology to perform gain-of-function experiments.
The scientific and public health establishment—more than aided by establishment media figures biased against outspoken proponents of the theory such as President Donald Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton—closed ranks last year to consign any hypotheses about a non-zoonotic origin for COVID to the realm of the tinfoil-hats. There were always dissenters to this consensus within respected institutions of science, however, and sufficient time has passed for them to voice their concerns and desire for further investigation of COVID’s origins in public; now that the election is safely out of the way, establishment media are willing to comply.
As I wrote in a column earlier this month, of the origin question and gain-of-function research in general,
“The science” on this is decidedly not settled. That was the point 18 virologists, epidemiologists, and the like made in a letter in Science journal Thursday, writing, “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.” That was the point former NYT science writer Nicholas Wade made in a must-read survey of what we do know about the origins of this pandemic for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Moreover, as suggested by my conversation in that column with Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, a longtime opponent of gain-of-function experiments, from a policy perspective it doesn’t really matter if COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan virology lab. The risks gain-of-function research represents are clear and can be assessed on their own benefit and cost terms separate from historical reality:
Lipsitch’s primary point is one of protest, and he hopes everyone will join him; the gain-of-function research of the kind temporarily defunded from 2014 to 2017 is just not worth it. “The risks are substantial and the benefits to public health are small to nonexistent,” he said. His concern is that public health authorities and scientists are simply not asking the very basic relevant risk-benefit question when considering this sort of research, which is: Will the knowledge derived from such experiments be “worth the risk of releasing a pathogen that’s more dangerous than what we already have”? It doesn’t really matter how improbable that release is; it’s too catastrophic to allow.
Sen. Paul’s amendment is a good start, but just a start. If it makes sense not to fund such research in China, then perhaps American citizens shouldn’t fund it anywhere else either.