Image of the Lassa Virus by NIAID via Flickr.A type of research in which scientists alter the genetic code of pathogens with pandemic potential to understand how they might become more dangerous will be in the political and scientific spotlight this year. We have a new tip sheet to help you cover this complex topic.
The research under scrutiny, called gain-of-function, is conducted in biosecure labs with the aim of developing treatments and vaccines to prevent future pandemics. The research was controversial prior to the pandemic and has come under even greater scrutiny as scientists continue to investigate the origin of COVID-19.
An expert panel, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), has recommended tightening oversight on this research and others. The board’s vote followed two science board’s recommendations issued in mid-January 2023 for tightening protocols around any kind of research involving pathogens that are potentially highly transmissible, including viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Now it will be up to the White House to decide whether to implement them or not.
A summary of the recommendations can be found in our tip sheet, but first some political context: In early February, congressional Republicans began a series of hearings on the origins of COVID-19 and the federal government’s response to the pandemic, including oversight of gain-of-function research. Republicans plan to use the hearings as an opportunity to grill former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, as well as probe the agency’s link to a Wuhan laboratory that conducts pathogen research.
Without adequate evidence, some Republican lawmakers have charged that the Wuhan lab is the source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The majority of scientific evidence points to a natural origin for the virus, probably caused by repeated contacts between animals and people. But the exact source remains undetermined.
Also in mid-January, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that found the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could do more to increase oversight of research on pathogens of pandemic potential.
As the federal government evaluates its research rules and Republicans hold hearings, misinformation is likely to proliferate on social media. To help you with your reporting, take a look at our tip sheet with background, context and resources.