Why is gain-of-function research is a thing in virology?


The entire concept is alarming on the surface. The risks seem so profound you’d expect that the benefits would be pretty substantial. But for all the discussion of gain-of-function research that I’ve seen, I haven’t seen an explanation for what it is valuable, let alone what might make it valuable enough to offset the risks…

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In order to learn to fight worse and worse virii, they need to exist so you can test things on them. They enhance them so they can find out ways to kill them. The fact of the matter is that the enhancements are GOING to happen in nature sooner or later.

Viruses are going to evolve to become more infectious and some of those are going to be more deadly. Thats just how evolution works, and there is no stopping that. If you want to be prepared you need to study how viruses evolve to become more deadly and infectious. The only way to do that is gain of function research. Otherwise we will always being playing catch up against the viruses.

The argument for it goes something like this: There are a number of viruses that will likely cause epidemics/pandemics in the coming years. GoF can help understand and forecast what those outbreaks will be like and potentially work to mitigate them. Edit: specifically you can do things like use mouse models to see how a mutation impacts a virus, something that is difficult to determine by just looking at the DNA sequence. However GoF research is not the default and there are many alternatives that are generally preferred

For example COVID was actually the 3rd known coronavirus outbreak the first two being SARS (which was contained by the WHO in 2003) and MERS which never really spread outside the middle east, there might have also been several historical outbreaks. And thats just coronaviruses, theres also influenza (particularly bird flu), Nipah virus, Filoviruses, etc. all expected to cause outbreaks in the coming decades.

The argument against is fairly obvious: Making a virus more virulent is a huge risk, especially if it were to infect someone and/or escape.