As discussions about the source of the Covid-19 have intensified recently, all eyes have been on the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, particularly the “gain of function” research being carried out here. We have discussed these studies, which you will hear more frequently in the coming period.
What is functionalization? What does functional gain research have to do with Covid-19? We tried to clarify those who were wondering with 8 questions and 8 answers …
WHAT IS FUNCTIONALIZATION?
Research known as “gain of function” or GOF for short, is explained as the manipulation of pathogens, which are pathogenic microorganisms, in various ways to make them stronger, more contagious or more deadly. In other words, with these studies some of the functions of a pathogen are increased or that pathogen receives skills that it does not have in nature.
This research, whose main objective is to understand how viruses behave and how they acquire resistance against vaccines, aims to prepare the world against possible pandemics in the future and to predict new epidemics.
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HOW IS THE FUNCTIONALIZATION DONE?
There are two different ways to win depending. One is genetic engineering and the other is serial passage.
In genetic engineering, the genetic code of the pathogen is altered in a manner predetermined by scientists.
In serial passages, the pathogen is produced under different conditions and the changes it undergoes are observed. For example, the pathogen multiplied in one environment is then divided into several parts and taken to different environments with certain modified properties. After this process is repeated several times, the emerging pathogen is compared to the initial state of the pathogen. Thus, the changes in the genetic code can be understood.
CAN WE SAY THAT FUNCTIONAL ENJOYMENT RESEARCH IS THE CAUSE OF PANDEMIC?
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It is not correct to say this, as the production of a dangerous virus in the laboratory is not the only factor for a pandemic to occur. In order for the virus in question to get out of control, the security conditions in the laboratory must be quite weak. Some experts believe that critics of these studies place too much weight on the possibility of weak security measures.
Biosafety levels in laboratories range from 1 to 4, with 1 being the lowest. Ideally, experiments on pathogens that can be spread by aerosols should be carried out in level 4 laboratories. Wuhan Institute of Virology, which became operational in 2018, is a research institute with security level 4.
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However, the research director in Wuhan, Chi Jengli, the famous Chinese virologist nicknamed the “batwoman” In an interview with Science magazine, he also admitted that some of the coronavirus research at the institute was conducted at the 2nd level of security. Second level laboratories are places that should only be used for moderate risks. Researchers operating here can work on open benches wearing only a lab coat and gloves.
It was also revealed that a group of US officials who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018 sent two official warnings to Washington regarding inadequate safety precautions and untrained laboratory staff performing risky studies on coronaviruses transmitted by bats.
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WHAT IS THE SCOPE OF RESEARCH AT THE VUHAN INSTITUTE OF VIROLOGY?
A group of 15 scientists from different countries have been appointed to conduct research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology between 2015-2020. Received $ 600,000 in funding from the US government. President of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci testified in the US Senate last week that experts were investigating “whether bat coronaviruses pose a risk to humans “.
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The team created a more dangerous virus by combining two separate coronaviruses in the course of their work. In an article published by team members in the scientific journal Nature in 2015, said the man-made virus in question has the potential to be transmitted to humans.
In his statement to the Senate, Fauci said the scientists were not aiming to make the virus more contagious and therefore the experiments could not qualify as functional gain research, but there were serious caveats in the written article. by the experts:
“Scientific control panels may find that studies on cross-constructed chimeric viruses are too risky. These data and limitations indicate a crossroads in concerns about GOF research. With the potential to prepare for and mitigate future epidemics. , the risk of creating more pathogenic hazards is well established.
HAVE YOU ADVANCED FUNCTIONAL RESEARCH?
Functional research was first discussed in 2012. Around this time, a group of Japanese scientists published an article in the scientific journal Nature, advancing a theory on how the H5N1 virus, commonly referred to as “bird flu,” could have infected humans.
Scientists have modified the virus so that it can live in human lungs, which have a lower internal temperature than bird lungs. In this way, the virus became contagious through the coughing and sneezing of ferrets.
While this research has clearly shown how the H5N1 virus can be transmitted through the air, there has been a huge backlash in the United States. The New York Times editorial titled “Engineering Judgment Day” contained the following comment: “This research should never have been done.”
For this reason, in 2014 then-US President Barack Obama temporarily suspended funds transferred to functionalization research on many pathogens, especially viruses that can cause pandemics such as influenza, MERS. , SARS, because of the reactions created by the research. on the H5N1 Rules have been established to strengthen the controls.
The new rules went into effect in 2017, but while studies were halted in the United States, similar experiments continued (mostly with US funding) in labs around the world. One of them was the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was said to have been the center of Covid-19.
CAN IT BE USED FOR IMPROPER PURPOSES?
As we said above, the main goal of functionalization research is to produce viruses in the laboratory and to guard against possible pandemics in the future. However, the flip side is the possibility that this research could be used for malicious purposes. For this reason, the World Health Organization published a guideline covering dual-use research (Eng. Dual Use Research of Concern – DURC for short) which is of concern in the natural sciences in 2010.
DURC stands for the use of technology developed for peaceful purposes for military purposes. (Like the use of nuclear energy in the manufacture of atomic bombs.) In the past, discussions in this area have focused on the deliberate misuse of developed technologies. Biosecurity concerns have been at the forefront since 2014.
Professor Michael J. Selgelid, who was working in bioethics at the time, said in an article that “a devastating pandemic could result from a laboratory accident involving a dangerous pathogen created through research of the GOF “. Selgelid also said that there have been no issues in functional gains research so far, but that research can be done in countries and institutions that have weaker infrastructure and where research is not. not audited in the future.
Fauci, on the other hand, said in an article he wrote in 2012 that “these kinds of experiences and the knowledge gained as a result of the experiences outweigh the risks.”
Fauci commented: “It is much more likely that a pandemic will occur in the wild in the future, and having a head start on such a threat is the main reason for conducting an experiment which may seem risky.” However, Fauci also pointed out that there is a risk that the functionalization experiments performed by senior scientists in a world-class laboratory will be repeated by scientists who do not have the same training and facilities.
HOW WERE THE SUSPECTS ARISING ABOUT THE COVID-19 VIRUS?
The idea that the virus could be of laboratory origin was imposed from the first days of the pandemic. Thereupon, on March 17 last year, a group of scientists published a letter in the journal Nature Medicine, which explicitly denied the possibility that the virus was genetically modified, and this view was widely accepted.
Representatives of the World Health Organization also concluded that the likelihood of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreading from the research center after a 15-day investigation in China earlier this year was “too much. weak, “but WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was skeptical of these findings recently and said: He said the investigation in question was” not comprehensive enough “.
Some recent publications have called into question the work of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Nicholas Wade, a senior science journalist, wrote that serial passage studies conducted as part of the research project in Wuhan may have led to the evolution of the virus.
Ralph Baric, one of the authors of the paper published in Nature in 2015, said in an open letter published in Science this month with a group of scientists: “Until we have enough data, we must take both natural propagation and laboratory propagation hypotheses. seriously.”
One of the signatories of the letter, Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, said: “If you are doing an experiment that has a reasonable risk of triggering a new pandemic risk, you must have a very strong public health rationale behind it. . “
Lipsitch said: “If the virus is really coming from the lab, then it has significant implications against the studies we need to do and the precautions we need to take if we’re going to do those studies.”