can we prevent a pandemic by creating one in a lab?
Imagine a new pandemic. The virus, or bacterium, or fungus, is deadly enough to cause carnage on the scale of the Black Death. We have no vaccines or treatments in our arsenals. There’s not even a test we could make available to the general public before disaster strikes. But over the course of a year, no one dies or even catches the novel disease. There is no need for lockdowns, quarantines, or mass vaccination campaigns. No one even knows the pathogen exists, and no one needs to. In fact, it’s better they don’t.
Meanwhile, treatments and vaccines are tested and readied for mass production. If the illness ever appears, we could mobilize against it within weeks and have shots in arms and pills on the shelves within months. But for now, we can rest easy. The pandemic in question happened only inside of a lab, created by researchers, and kept alive only for the duration of an experiment. If the same mutations start to emerge in the wild, their research will make another world-altering pandemic more of a temporary inconvenience.
This is the promise of a controversial approach known as gain of function. Rather than just wait for a disease to surprise us and rush to contain it, we would figure out every possible mutation that could create the next COVID, monkey pox, or swine flu, come up with the proper chemical formulas to battle them, and be ready at a moment’s notice to fight, or even prevent as many as half a million potential threats to our health and wellbeing. Instead of reacting to biological disasters, we’d be proactively preparing to fight them.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But while there are passionate advocates of gain-of-function, there are many other equally passionate and educated voices raising serious concerns and questions about the risk this research can pose, and the practical potential of its benefits. You see, what we just discussed was the sales pitch. Now we get down to the small print and gotchas, and in the messy real world, there are plenty of those, enough that some scientists are worried that we’re not ready to routinely conduct this sort of research safely.
the downside of playing virus roulette
First and foremost, there’s the fact that you would be creating a brand-new virus that might have never emerged on its own. For example, right before COVID struck, several labs were in the middle of trying to make bird flu more contagious to prepare for another pandemic like swine flu. Even more recent experiments found that other coronaviruses may be just one or two mutations away from infecting humans. But are these mutations inevitable enough to justify making them in a lab? We don’t know. All we can do is guess.
We could end up spending many billions of dollars and many years chasing down mutations that will never happen, then spend just as much time and money trying to make vaccines and drugs we’ll never use. And while we’re busy fighting potential outbreaks, odds are that we’ll face another dozen or so that we never saw coming. We currently track roughly half a million viruses for potential dangers. It’s statistically certain that we’ll miss a few of them when they transition from animals to us with in a completely random event.
Even more problematic than creating viruses that may never exist while a real one sneaks up on us is the fact that we now have a new disease that we know to be dangerous. Should there be a containment breach, things could go very badly, very quickly. Worse yet, information on how to create these viruses could be sold to nefarious actors who may use them as bioweapons. The biggest danger there wouldn’t be governments, but non-state entities who don’t worry about global trade or the state of economy, and actively want to wreak death and destruction.
Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult, tried to get its hands on Ebola after using chemical weapons, and Rajneeshees in Oregon unleashed mutated salmonella on the town of Antelope. Now imagine what they could’ve done with a custom virus given to them by members of their groups with access to swipe a sample, and the training to keep it viable for infection. Just look at how haphazardly we fumbled COVID, and how worried virologists are about our handling of future pandemics. The threat anyone with an engineered virus can pose is truly horrific.
is gain of function even worth in the long run?
All it would take to make the above worst-case scenario possible is just one experiment gone wrong, which has many experts asking for a pause to this research, arguing that it’s simply too risky and offers too little benefit to justify. There may be very narrow cases where it could be truly helpful but going out and actively exploring what virus may strike first out of hundreds of potential pandemic candidates based on educated guesstimates starts to seem more and more like a bad idea the deeper you dive into it.
So where does this leave us when it comes to gain of function experiments? The bottom line is that there are simply too many potential viruses that could attack us, and new ones can evolve every day. Even if we were to narrow down the effort to a thousand most likely targets every year, we would have centuries of work to do and need trillions of dollars, all while knowing full well that even after all that work, some random virus we knew little to nothing about is certain to sneak up on us anyway.
Meanwhile, we’d be creating hundreds of thousands of new microorganisms guaranteed to harm us around the clock, and the world may well grind to a halt if one of them slips out a bit too early and the vaccines and treatments for it aren’t ready yet. In effect, we’d have to accept the idea of doubling the reservoir of dangerous diseases while hoping that we accumulate just enough knowledge in time to stop them from actually infecting us or achieve a breakthrough that could let us combat entire viral families at once, which is far from guaranteed.
And considering that climate change is about to make pandemics worse and more likely, we’ll have our hands full with actual viruses, fungi, and bacteria to study and neutralize as it is. Why spend billions we already have to pry out disinterested politicians’ iron grips hunting potential threats and multiplying existing ones while very real ones are already knocking on our door? The idea that we can get the drop on the next pandemic sounds very appealing. But math and biology just aren’t on our side in that quest.