What is gain of function and what does it have to do with the COVID-19 virus?

The question of whether the COVID-19 virus escaped from a lab in China instead of being passed in nature from an animal to a human has become a hotly debated one.

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Part of that debate has centered on a type of research into viruses and how they spread that is considered risky by some scientists and necessary by others.

Called gain of function research, some are speculating that it could have been responsible for the COVID-19 virus and the pandemic it created.

What is gain of function research and how could it have caused the novel coronavirus to spread? Here’s what we know.

What is gain of function research?

In its simplest form, gain of function research refers to a process that alters some aspect of the way an organism functions.

Gain of function research is used in many ways, but the process turns controversial when scientists use it to make pathogens more infectious, particularly to humans.

That is done so researchers can begin to develop a defense for the pathogen before it has a chance to evolve into something deadly to animals or humans.

Those who favor gain of function research say the knowledge that is gained by enhancing viruses to develop vaccines against a potential outbreak outweighs the risk of a virus escaping a laboratory and causing a pandemic.

Those who are against gain of function research say it is simply too risky to make viruses more deadly, especially considering there is a chance they can escape a laboratory.

Why are we talking about gain of function now?

As researchers try to find the origin of the COVID-19 virus, some have suggested that it may have escaped a laboratory in Wuhan, China, going on to infect people around the world.

President Joe Biden last week asked the national intelligence community to redouble efforts to investigate where the virus originated. Biden released a statement revealing that the U.S. intelligence community has “coalesced around two likely scenarios” for the origins of COVID-19, “including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”

Former President Donald Trump, speaking to Fox Nation’s Dan Bongino in May, said he had “very little doubt” that the virus came from a lab.

Is that what happened in the case of COVID-19?

It is not yet known if the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by an enhanced pathogen escaping the laboratory.

Some say the U.S. funded gain of function research that could have led to the pandemic. Is that true?

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has accused Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, of funding experiments that led to a modified, more deadly coronavirus.

In May, during a Senate hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic response, Paul said the NIH had been sending money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, to pay for gain of function research.

Paul suggested that money that went to the lab was used to create the novel coronavirus and that the virus somehow escaped from that lab, causing the pandemic.

“Sen. Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely, entirely and completely incorrect,” Fauci said in response to Paul’s pandemic scenario. “The NIH has not ever, and does not now, fund gain of function research in the Wuhan Institute.”

Fauci later clarified his response, saying the NIH did fund a project that was carried out at the Wuhan lab that was not meant for gain of function research.

The NIH funding Fauci referenced went to EcoHealth Alliance, which hired the Wuhan lab to do genetic analyses of coronaviruses in bats to determine how the animals spread the virus to humans. EcoHealth received $3.7 million over six years from the NIH, FactCheck.org reported, and distributed nearly $600,000 of that money to the Wuhan Institute, a collaborator on the project, preapproved by the NIH.

Robert Kessler, a spokesperson for EcoHealth Alliance, told The Washington Post, the organization “was funded by the NIH to conduct a study of coronavirus diversity in China. From that award, we subcontracted work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology to help with sampling and lab capacity.”

According to FactCheck, Stanley Perlman, a microbiologist at the University of Iowa, said EcoHealth’s research was about “trying to see if these viruses can infect human cells and what about the spike protein on the virus determines that.”

Perlman said he did not think there was anything in the EcoHealth grant description that would be considered gain of function research.

In April 2020, the grant to EcoHealth Alliance was terminated by Donald Trump’s administration. The grant was later reinstated with the stipulation that funds can only be used if conditions set by the NIH are met.

In the May hearing, Fauci defended the funding, saying, “Let me explain to you why that was done, the SARS COV-1 originated in bats in China.

“It would have been irresponsible of us if we did not investigate the bat viruses and the serology to see who might have been infected,” Fauci said.

Is there evidence of a lab leak?

So far, there has been no evidence that the virus was created using gain of function research and then escaped the Wuhan lab. Nor is there definitive evidence that the virus originated in an animal and was transmitted to humans naturally.

Further investigation is needed to determine how the virus was transmitted.

However, the possibility that it could have escaped from a laboratory has more scientists calling for an investigation into the virus’s origins.

Last week, a group of researchers called for a further investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in a letter published in the journal Science.

Members in Congress have also said further investigation is needed.

“As we analyze what went wrong and what we can do in the future, we have to have answers to these questions, too,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said.

“And I think you’re going to see Congress addressing some of these matters as well. We’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”

The World Health Organization and China released a joint report in May that said it was likely that COVID-19 was transmitted from bats to another animal and subsequently to humans.

Fourteen countries, including the U.S., have cast doubt on those findings, saying the WHO team who investigated the virus’s origins was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”

Does the U.S. fund gain of function research?

In 2014, the U.S. government put a pause on new funding of gain of function research.

The pause applied to specific types of research on influenza, MERS and SARS.

On Dec. 19, 2017, the pause was lifted when new rules for funding research were released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.