On “Gain of Function” Research, COVID-19 and the Shortcomings of the Biological Weapons Convention: an Interview with Laurie Garrett

Photograph Source: Charles Hutchins – CC BY 2.0

The following e-interview was conducted with Pulitzer Prize winning author Laurie Garrett, after I heard her Zoom interview on This Week in Virology. Having abandoned the pursuit of a PhD in bacteriology and immunology in order to become a journalist, Garrett is a foremost exemplar of “knowledge-based journalism,” whose book, THE COMING PLAGUE: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, was on the New York Times bestseller list for nineteen weeks.

Q: Putting aside any suggestion of conspiracy theories, what are your feelings about “gain of function” experiments with pathogens? Are the potential benefits worth the risks?

A: For 13 years I ran global health efforts at the Council on Foreign Relations, where (among other things) I worked on policy issues surrounding Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) and Gain of Function work (GOF). In both cases I wrote several papers and attended many meetings at the National Academy of Sciences and elsewhere. I also went to China to discuss the issues there.

You can pull some of my writing up on the Foreign Affairs website’s archive.

DURC was a hot issue immediately following the anthrax attacks of 2001, as the Bush Administration grew increasingly concerned that working on pathogens for public health purposes could direct “bad guys” towards ways to flip the same research into weaponry. As synthetic biology emerged as a field the debates heated up – high school kids were making novel organisms, and dangerous pathogens (incurable mouse smallpox, 1918 influenza) were made in the lab. The FBI was all over those labs, but fars [sic] rose that such scrutiny was not the case overseas.

GOF really arose as a flu issue. Two key labs were at issue – Ron Fouchier’s lab at Erasmus in the Netherlands and Kyoshi Kawaoka’s lab at U Wisconsin. Both researchers were making genetic changes is[sic] killer bird flu viruses to try to understand how they turn into human pathogens – what genetic changes make a virus, like H5N1, that wipes out 100% of chickens it infects turn into a human-to-human killer. The intent was to identify genetic shifts in nature that should alert public health systems, so that vaccine makers can rush to make products before a pandemic unfolds. But there was a good deal of fear that the work could leak from labs, or the published “how-to” info could be used by Al-Qaeda or some mythological bad guys to make plagues. In the end, it was clear that the labs were super high security, and nobody could see why bad guys would release a deadly flu, since it would kill as many of their folks as of their enemy.

The one thing that came out of the DURC and GOF debates that may be relevant to COVID is that risk at the lab bench was actually very low, as long as BSL-3 precautions were followed. The greater concern was experimentation in animals. Both the Kawaoka and Fouchier labs expeimentally infected ferrets with their genetically altered viruses to see if the animals passed virus to other ferrets through shared air spaces. It was pretty universally felt that animal work is riskier because the critters bite, claw, run away, sneeze – overall, offer more potential for infecting people working in the lab.

Kawaoka ended up making some important findings using GOF. When the H1N1 sine[sic] flu emerged in 2009 he used his system to swiftly show which mutations had allowed the pig virus to infect people, and prove that the virus was a very efficient human-to-human transmitter. If memory serves, he also showed that the H1N1 strain was less pathogenic to humans – which explains why we had a massive pandemic, in terms of numbers of cases, with relatively low death rates.

Nobody has proven, or in my opinion even convincingly hinted, that GOF was going on inside WIV, working on manipulated the genomes of bat viruses.

Q:  Are the safeguards at biohazard labs around the world adequate? From what you’ve seen, which countries are more at fault and what do they need to do to improve?

A:  I have written about this and produced a YouTube video years ago on this. Before 2000 there were only a handful of BSL-4 labs in the entire world, all of them in Russia, USA, UK, China, NoKorea…. It was a finite number, closely monitored by CIA, Interpol and their counterparts. But after the human genome was sequenced fully (2000) and the tools for gene splicing became easier to use, there was a boom in construction of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs – and that surged after the anthrax attacks. I was appalled because high security labs were opening in places that were politically very risky. For example, Ethiopia wanted one in Addis Ababa. Cambodia wanted one. Libya. Saudi Arabia. There are no enforced standards for lab construction, safety, training – nothing.  And sure enough, accidents happened.

I tried to find a way to create global standards, inspection, safety – which ended up requiring a review of the Biological Weapons Convention. Everybody close to the issue agrees the BWC is ridiculous – it was drafted before modern DNA theory existed for godssake. But there is no genuine appetite for fixing it.

Q:  Do you see potential conflicts between improving public health and maintaining an economic system rooted in endless growth? For example, economic growth requires us to plunder forests and the ocean while the environmental and health consequences have already been seen to be devastating. Do you see a solution to this clash? If so, do you think the public would accept it?

A. See my book: Betrayal of Trust. I don’t have time to summarize the 600+ page effort for you.

[According to Garrett’s website, Betrayal of Trust deals primarily with failures in public health systems around the world. Exclusive material not contained in the book may be found on the webpage.]

Q:  How would you educate the public to accept the changes in lifestyle which may be necessary to maintain public health and a viable ecology?

A:  I’m no expert on public education — ask somebody who knows more about this.


Jenna Orkin is the author of Writer Wannabe Seeks Brush With Death.