4 Takeaways From First Hearing on Gain-of-Function Research, COVID-19

Wednesday’s first hearing by Congress was to determine if gain-of function research funded by U.S. taxpayers may have contributed to the spread COVID-19. 

Rand Paul, R-Ky. was the chair of the hearing that was held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on emerging threat and spending oversight. 

“Gain-of-function research has the potential to unleash a global pandemic that threatens the lives of millions, yet this is the first time the issue has been discussed in a congressional committee,” said Paul, ranking member of the subcommittee.

Since no Democrats were present, Paul was appointed chairman. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), is the subcommittee chairman, and her name was on this year’s list. hearing schedule

The term “gain of function” describes a risky process of making a pathogen more dangerous or contagious for the purpose of studying a response.

In May 2021, Dr. Anthony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) stated that the United States was a “United States of America”. never funded gain-of-function projects at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

However, e-mails from Fauci and other federal public health officials showed that Fauci’s agency did fund research that involved making a virus more transmissible from animals to humans. 

The Daily Signal previously reported that the U.S. government donated almost $600,000. to the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance from 2014 to 2019. The money was then used to pay for coronavirus research at Wuhan Lab. 

The National Institutes of Health, the parent agency to Fauci’s agency, sent a letterEcoHealth Alliance in July 2020 to inquire about the Wuhan Institute of Virology. NIH also suspended the nonprofit’s grant, pending answers to several questions. 

“I’m sure each member of this committee, as well as the full Senate, can agree that we need stronger government oversight of how our tax dollars are being used to experiment with possible fatal diseases,” Paul said at the Wednesday hearing. 

These are the key takeaways of the first hearing on gain function research. 

 1. Did Fauci Lie?

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., read a statement from Dr. Richard Ebright, laboratory director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University, in which he said that National Institutes of Health officials, including Fauci, “lied to Congress, lied to the press, and lied to the public knowingly, willfully, brazenly.”

Hawley read another statement in which Ebright called Fauci’s claim that the NIH did not support gain-of-function research “untruthful.”

Ebright told Hawley, “I stand by my statement.”

“The statements made on repeated occasions to the public, the press, and to policymakers by the NIAID director, Dr. Fauci, have been untruthful,” Ebright said. “I do not understand why those statements are being made, because they are demonstrably false.”  

Fauci has maintained that he never lied to Congress. 

2. ‘Deliberately Unleashed to Kill Millions’?

Kevin Esvelt is an assistant professor of media arts, sciences, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. He said that government officials have not considered potential national security threats from gain-of function research. 

“The problem is that we are so used to thinking of pandemics as a health and safety issue that we have missed the national security implications of identifying viruses that could be deliberately unleashed to kill millions of people,” Esvelt told the Senate panel. 

He said that when a disease breaks out, scientists often don’t have to wait to begin studying it, in part because gain-of-function research allows immediate study. 

“From a biomedical perspective, that is a triumph, particularly because it only costs a few thousand dollars, and the price is plummeting,” he said. “But from a security perspective, that means that thousands of researchers could gain access to a novel, pandemic agent as soon as it was identified as such.”

3. ‘No Dispositive Evidence’

According to the Chinese government, COVID-19 was born in a wet market in Wuhan. It then spread throughout China. A wet marketplace is an open-air, often unhygienic market that sells fresh meats, fish, and other produce.

Based on his research, Dr. Steven Quay, CEO of Atossa Therapeutics Inc., stated that the scenario is extremely unlikely. 

“There is no dispositive evidence the pandemic began as a spillover of a natural virus in a market,” Quay said. “All evidence is consistent with a laboratory-acquired infection.”

He also stated that he believed its release was accidental, and not deliberate. He said he understands the conclusion “is not widely held,” but said he would state that under oath and would debate other scientists. 

“The virus has three genomic regions that have the signature of synthetic biology—that is, gain-of-function research,” he said in his opening statement. “One region has features of the two types of forbidden gain-of-function research that are associated with bioweapons development: asymptomatic transmission and immune-system evasion.”

Later in the hearing, he answered a question about China’s gain-of-function research.

 “In December 2019, they were doing synthetic biology on a cloning vector of the Nipah virus, which is 60% lethal. We just experienced a 1% lethal virus,” Quay said. “My estimate is, that could set us back a millennium. The Black Plague was a 20% lethal event, and it was a 250-year event for civilization to return.”

4. ‘We Shouldn’t Be Doing This at All?’

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked the experts if they agreed with these questions about gain-of-function research: “There’s certainly no benefit that overrides the risk? We shouldn’t be doing this at all?”

There were many responses. 

Quay said, “My analysis is that [gain-of-function research] hasn’t contributed to the response to this pandemic.”

Esvelt was less certain but acknowledged that the risks are ultimately greater.

“For balancing the potential benefits of prevention against the risk of accidents, it can go either way, depending on the numbers you use,” he said. “When you add the misuse case, that is what blows it out of the water.”

Ebright stated, however, that gain-of function research on known diseases could be beneficial.

“I believe in enhancing the oversight of the research is the more effective and more prudent strategy than simply banning it,” he said. 

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