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Republican lawmakers seek to ban gain-of-function research involving 'potential pandemic pathogen'

Growing evidence in favor of the laboratory leak as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a debate over public funding for these types of studies.

Científico con vestimenta protectora sostiene un hibisco y un tubo.


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The House of Representatives this week introduced a bill (HR 5894) to prevent the United States from funding gain-of-function research for "potential pandemic pathogens."

This type of research, which increases the infectious capacity of a virus to evaluate its characteristics and potential antidotes, was carried out by the laboratory in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 may have leaked. The new rule would establishes funding guidelines for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), which sent money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

"We should have learned our lesson," said Rep. Thomas Massi. Instead of helping to create vaccines for the next big pandemic, something that he believes is statistically impossible to predict, those who are conducting this research are creating "a blueprint for the next pandemic."

Massie co-sponsored an amendment to expand the ban, with the aim of vetoing the use of the funds not only in nations considered by the secretary of state as a "foreign adversaries," a list that includes China, Iran, Russia and Venezuela, but also in allies like Europe or home in the United States.

The House of Representatives will decide whether to approve the entire bill after Thanksgiving. Even if it passes this stage, however, it will be difficult to obtain the necessary support in the Senate with a Democratic majority.

Critical voices against gain-of-function research

In 2014, the Obama administration decided to suspend funding for new gain-of-function research and recommended pausing those already in development. The objective was to evaluate "potential risks and benefits" of this type of research.

Specifically, the funding pause will apply to gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.

In 2017, the government lifted the suspension. Growing evidence in favor of a lab leak theory as a possible origin of COVID-19 has revived the debate about the dangers and benefits of this type of research.

The scientific community, regulators and elected officials are evaluating ways to increase controls, or in the case of Massie, prohibit them, for these types of studies. Additionally, Massie's amendment was not the only one introduced with the goal of increasing the reach of HR 5894. Rep. Matt Rosendale introduced a bill to eliminate funding to the NIH's Rocky Mountain Laboratories research facility, located in Hamilton, Mont.

Just this month, three Wisconsin Republican senators introduced a bill to ban gain-of-function research in the state.