While the White House reported Monday that the U.S. intelligence community has not yet reached a “consensus” on the origins of the COVID-19 virus, the Biden administration voiced support for the practice of gain-of-function research, so long as it was done safely, securely, and with transparency.
As complicated as it is complex, such research generally refers to the intentional manipulation of viruses to make them more transmissible, and therefore more dangerous, in order to study them. Critics argue the risks outweigh any potential reward if this kind of research goes wrong.
Congressional Republicans, led by Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Rand Paul, say that the coronavirus likely leaked from a Chinese research facility in Wuhan that was engaging in that kind of research and have called for a moratorium on federal funding to any university or organizations conducting gain-of-function studies.
When RealClearPolitics asked Monday if President Biden thought gain of function was “prudent,” John Kirby, the president’s National Security Council spokesman replied that he did.
“He believes that it’s important to help prevent future pandemics, which means he understands that there has to be legitimate scientific research into the sources or potential sources of pandemics so that we understand it so that we can prevent them and we prevent them from happening obviously,” Kirby said before adding that the president believed any such research “must be done in a safe and secure manner and as transparent as possible to the rest of the world.”
To sum up, Kirby then told RCP, “I think that’s a fancy way of saying ‘yes.’”
The Obama administration reached a different conclusion in 2014 and halted taxpayer funding for such research. Three years later, during the Trump administration, the National Institute of Health lifted that moratorium.
Republicans have accused the NIH of funding gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology through an intermediary, the American biomedical company EcoHealth Alliance. Dr. Anthony Fauci, formerly the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress in May of 2021 that NIH “has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Critics have returned to that controversy in light of new reporting by the Wall Street Journal that the Energy Department has concluded the COVID-19 most likely arose from a laboratory leak. That theory was first posited during the Trump administration and widely dismissed at the time as a conspiracy theory. It increasingly seems plausible after a separate earlier analysis by the FBI concluded that the lab in Wuhan was the “likely” origin of the virus.
“If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that risky virus-enhancing research – like the type conducted in Wuhan that was funded by the U.S. government – needs more oversight and regulation,” Rand Paul told RCP.
A physician and a vocal critic of Fauci, Paul added that “worldwide approximately 15 million people died – the memory of their deaths demands that we have more scrutiny of this dangerous research.”
Congressional Republicans already promised more oversight and investigations into the issue, especially after the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General wrote in a report last month that “NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address” whether EcoHealth Alliance complied with reporting requirements.
The White House did not confirm the WSJ report but reiterated that Biden had “doubled down” and ordered that considerable resources are put behind “getting to the bottom of the origins of COVID-19.” Republicans, meanwhile, continue to argue that Biden is going soft on Beijing.
“The Biden White House won’t have credibility on safe scientific research so long as it continues to dismiss the growing evidence that COVID came from a gain-of-function lab accident in China,” Marco Rubio, the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told RCP.
Biden drew the ire of Republicans last summer when his administration declined to say whether the president personally urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to cooperate with international investigations of the pandemic’s origin. So far, Beijing has not done so, blocking the World Health Organization, for instance, from conducting additional on-the-ground probe.
Asked if the president has broached the issue, Kirby noted how the administration has regularly called on Beijing to be more transparent and told RCP that Biden called for additional cooperation “when he met with President Xi in Bali just a couple of months ago.” A White House readout of that meeting, as the New York Post reported at the time, did not include any mention of the origins of COVID.
Controversy continues on the gain-of-function front. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NASB) recommended sweeping new changes to how the government regulates gain-of-function experiments last month. As the New York Times reported, the decision now rests with the Biden administration as it seeks to balance the apparent need for research to prevent a pandemic with the possibility of that kind of research inadvertently jumpstarting a plague.
“If the government implements the spirit of what they’ve written,” Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense specialist at George Mason University, told the Times, “this would be a major overhaul of dual-use research oversight in the United States.”
That kind of research remains “vital for ensuring the United States is prepared to rapidly detect, respond to, and recover from future infectious disease threats,” Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak said last year. What is needed is balance, he explained in a February 2021 statement announcing the review by the NASB board. “Such research can be inherently high risk given the possibility of biosafety lapses or deliberate misuse,” Tabak said. “However, not doing this type of research could impair our ability to prepare for and/or respond to future consequential biological threats.”
As the New York Times noted, the White House will soon decide whether to adopt the new recommendations for how gain of function should be handled. Biden, as Kirby told RCP, believes that kind of research can be done prudently.