Wisconsin is not Wuhan: Don’t ban ‘gain of function’ research

In a nationwide poll conducted earlier this year, about half of the respondents said they believed COVID-19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Others who were polled thought the virus likely occurred naturally — or they simply didn’t know.

Unfortunately, the origins of COVID-19 may forever remain in the “don’t know” category. In the meantime, policymakers should not overreact by banning an entire branch of scientific research that can produce better vaccines; protect livestock and people from diseases that can migrate among species; engineer drought- and blight-resistant plants; and even produce microbes that eat plastic.

Legislation circulating in the state Capitol would ban Wisconsin colleges and universities from conducting “gain of function” research, which has been used for years to uncover foundational knowledge about biology and solve problems by doing so. The term usually refers to learning more about disease-causing pathogens, testing how they mutate, and studying their potential to cause pandemics.

In a way, “gain of function” research is rooted in the 1953 discovery of the DNA double helix, which gave rise to modern molecular biology and greater understanding of how genes control the molecular processes within cells. Such work exploded as scientists — including UW–Madison Nobel Prize winner Howard Temin — learned more about how RNA can speed the process.

“Gain of function” experiments over time led to breakthroughs such as allowing purification of massive amounts of insulin produced in bacteria or yeast with consistent potency. That process was much less risky than using insulin extracted from animals. Similar medical benefits have accrued over time from “gain of function” research, from new drugs to Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

No one denies there can be dangers with “gain of function” experiments, especially if toxins and transmissible pathogens break out. Wisconsin isn’t Wuhan, however, and it doesn’t make sense to adopt a ban that would halt important research or put Wisconsin scientists at a competitive disadvantage.

The Wisconsin legislation is a delayed reaction to accidents in 2013 and 2019 involving development of a potentially dangerous bird flu vaccine, and one in 2009 in which a lab broke federal rules by creating a drug-resistant strain of bacteria. The 2009 incident led to fines and the banning of a key scientist for five years. The 2013 and 2019 accidents were communicated properly and UW–Madison complied with federal inspectors.

These events happened, but what are the regulatory checks and balances today?

UW–Madison has an Institutional Biosafety Committee and an Office of Biological Safety. Some “gain of function” experiments are run through the School of Veterinary Medicine and the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, focusing on bacteria or viruses that can harm poultry, trigger bovine mastitis, and cause blight in potatoes.

Federal oversight includes the Select Agent Program, which oversees the possession, use, and transfer of many biological agents and toxins, and the National Institutes of Health Office of Science Policy. The Centers for Disease Control also shares in the oversight, which was evident in a recent investigation of a mysterious biolab with Chinese ties near Fresno, California. In short, internal and national reporting requirements are stringent.

Compare that to the black hole of information about Wuhan Institute for Virology, where Chinese authorities blocked investigations by the World Health Organization and others.

Some Wisconsin members of Congress renewed questions about the 2013 and 2019 UW-related incidents in an April letter to federal officials. That likely influenced the introduction of the bill (LRB-2947) in the Wisconsin Legislature. Unspoken but clear is concern about China’s pathogen work.

Let’s suppose that concern is real. What’s worse? Waiting for a foreign pathogen release, either accidental or deliberate, or allowing U.S. scientists to continue precautionary work?

Many safeguards are in place for “gain of function” research, and they should be strictly enforced. An outright ban on experiments in one state out of 50 causes more problems than it purports to solve.