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Renewed Gain-of-Function Worries

The lab-leak theory for the spread of COVID-19 is reviving worries about gain-of-function research, the New York Times reports.

The term, it adds, came up as US Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) queried Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House chief medical advisor, as to whether the National Institutes of Health had funded such work in China, which Fauci said it did not. As the Times writes, the exchange recalled a decade-long debate over gain-of-function research.

In 2011, two research groups announced that they were able to generate new variants of the avian influenza virus H5N1 that was more easily transmissible through air, sparking controversy. Following this and the revelation of some sample-handling mishaps the US paused gain-of-function studies involving influenza, SARS, and MERS until a new policy was hammered out.

But experts tell the Times that the policy falls short. It only applies to research funded by certain agencies and approvals have been made by a committee whose membership, qualifications, and criteria for allowing gain-of-function research are unclear, leading to calls for greater transparency. For instance, Rutgers University's Richard Ebright has proposed an independent council to oversee such pathogen research like Nuclear Regulatory Commission that oversees work involving radioactive materials.

"There are no biosafety rules or regulations that have the force of law" in the US, he tells the paper. "And this is in contrast to every other aspect of biomedical research."

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