‘We are not that great’: Gain-of-function research highlights our hubris

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has made believers out of us. The statements “I believe in science” and “follow the science” express our collective assurance that scientific innovation will continue to serve humanity and sustain us through our pandemic weariness.

Historically, our scientific pursuits have catalyzed both extraordinary accomplishments and unimaginable atrocities. The line between the two is thin and the guardrails that protect against crossing this line are easily corroded. As a by-product of human ingenuity, science, like any other human endeavour, is flawed and at times unpredictable – beset by human error, inaccuracies, biases, conflicts of interest, ethical challenges and political influence.

There are limits to our advances, and the more reckless we are with our scientific pursuits, the closer we come to the edge of these limitations. And when we do cross that line, science can no more save us from ourselves than an alchemist can turn lead into gold.

Life finds a way

In his bestselling literary works, science fiction author Michael Crichton explores themes of science, technology, medicine and the ways in which human failure can lead to catastrophe. In a case of life imitating art, the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic reads like a storyline from a Crichton novel.

SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread across the globe almost two years after it was first discovered. As the world mulls the theory that a lab leak ignited the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the real and present danger of gain-of-function research has been brought to light.

Gain-of-function research involves the genetic modification of hazardous pathogens in ways that can increase human infectivity. The goal of such research is to understand the mechanisms of human infection and develop strategies to mitigate a pandemic, should an outbreak occur. Restricted to laboratories with high-level clearance and rigorous safety protocols, gain-of-function research treads an almost imperceptible line between catastrophic risk and potential benefit.

Despite the safety guardrails that exist for such labs, there are numerous examples of gain-of-function research that clearly crossed this line – deadly pathogens that escaped from labs, scientists who were accidentally exposed or infected, safety and security breaches, unethical activity, poor work environments and political intrigue. Temporary moratoriums and outsourcing of research to other countries does little to ensure long-term global safety. Whatever illusion of certainty we manufactured for ourselves should long ago have vanished like a desert mirage.

History will sort out the origins of SARS-CoV-2. In the meantime, our struggle to contain the crisis suggests that we are in over our heads, despite our best efforts, years of gain-of-function research and our so-called pandemic preparedness.

The current global crisis is a valuable case study of our finite ability to control nature once it’s pushed to the edge of an unstable guardrail. Even the theoretical possibility that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab should cause us to take pause, because gain-of-function research using some of the deadliest pathogens known to humankind continues to thrive as the current pandemic rages on. Amid unprecedented morbidity, mortality, economic and personal hardship, political and social unrest, scientific and medical upheaval and desperate attempts to vaccinate the world, we are consistently steps behind rapidly emerging variants and subsequent waves of disease.

If ever there was a lens through which to view the potential catastrophic impact of gain-of-function research, it is the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, regardless of whether the virus gained functionality in a lab or through natural selection. To quote Crichton, either way: “… the history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.”

The litmus test of science

In 1963, Joseph A. Davis Jr. curated an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo titled The Most Dangerous Animal in the World. The exhibit appeared in the Great Apes House, situated between cages containing orangutans and gorillas. Visitors to the exhibit were stunned to see a reflection of their own face looking back at them from behind a cage. The illusion, created by an artfully placed mirror, delivered an elegant, powerful message, further articulated by a sign that read: “You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has the power to wipe out all life on earth.”

The ability for self-reflection has made us arguably the most sentient, intelligent and dangerous species on the planet. It takes little consideration to realize our sophistication and ingenuity, to pat ourselves on the collective back for the brilliant ways in which we’ve managed to tinker with our natural world for the benefit of humankind. Yet, science, technology and medicine also serve as a mirror through which to reflect on our misconceptions. Despite the sophistication of our innovations, the assumption that we can outsmart nature is a dangerous delusion. It is also the height of arrogance.

We live in a golden cage where the illusion that we can control life shackles us to a false sense of security. It is precisely this hubris that drives us toward existential danger. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, it is the value of humility. Science is a human construct and is inherently fallible because we are fallible. The real litmus test of science is to hold a mirror up to humanity and reflect our true nature – both our virtues and our vices, our limitlessness and our limitations.

The fulcrum of science rests on our ability to erect the necessary guardrails to protect against exceeding the limits of our ingenuity. And as conservationist Baba Dioum illustrates: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

It is time we turn toward the natural world and our own shortcomings with appropriate reverence and learn this fundamental lesson: We are not that great.

The comments section is closed.

  • n walsworth says:

    I’m sure a lot of this gain of function research was moved to Canada – hence the over initial reaction. Here’s a link of the new evidence of a cover-up https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sD0i_YxPATc (If quacks then its likely a duck). Here is the commissioned ethical analysis https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4996883/. I would think Biden has no choice but to cull these scientists and distance himself. …. Still we may want to be grateful for them developing Omicron.

  • Deb Lefebre says:

    I love reading the Healthy Debate newsletter for its range of topics, Canadian content and educational service. I constantly share relevant articles with friends and family. Of all the excellent articles I have read in the past two years, this one is, hands down, the most brilliant and apt one. It’s honesty and stark, realistic cautions resonate deeply in a world that is so divided and contentious. Bravo

  • Dr. Rob Murray [DDS ret'd] says:

    We are not that great.

    Medicine has lost its way and is no longer looking for root causes of disease. “The greater the ignorance the greater the dogma”- Osler. The paradigm of modern medicine is to palliate. Historically inflammation was usually found to be due to infection but medical doctors have been discouraged from going into microbiology, pathology and infectious disease the because they have been told that most of the problems have been solved with antibiotics and better hygiene. There are no detective medical pathologists with microbiological training being graduated to track down the true cause of death in most of these cases. In medicine the dead shall speak to the living but autopsies are expensive and seldom done anymore. Shareholders are interested in profits and are not interested in antibiotics, vaccines and cures. The pharmaceutical industry sells lots of expensive treatments and Band Aids.

    AMMI Canada and PHAC now see their chief role to be preserving the antibiotic supply. Family docs and their patients have been thrown under the bus.

    Scientists don’t tend to make as many bold dogmatic statements as medical doctors because they realize that science is provisional and is always changing. Only recently has it become apparent that most chronic infections such as otitis media, bronchitis etc. are caused by non-dividing biofilm organisms which are 1,000 time more resistant to antibiotics than planktonic organism yet there are no biofilm busting agents being developed. No one knows what is going on with really slow growing bacteria. They are very hard to grow. Anybody can say anything.

    Medicine has become too dependent on the model of autoimmune disease and the idea that that a perfectly functioning defence system in the body for no good reason will turn against itself. Powerful expensive immunosuppressants have given the pharmaceutical industry lifetime annuities.

    Amongst ‘crypto-infections’ Lyme disease stands as one of the earliest known and scientifically chronicled yet its nature, indeed its very existence, has over the past half century met with a barrage of what can only be called unhelpful scepticism at best and, at worst, an unaccountable degree of obstruction. Bias hasn’t stopped scores of researchers from claiming that there’s conclusive proof that antibiotics don’t help chronic Lyme. Some have even taken the leap to insist that there’s no evidence for persistent infection in chronic Lyme, despite the flagrant evidence that there is. Add in the reinforcing powers of group dynamics, and bias reigns supreme in academic medicine. At this point we can say that Lyme doesn’t just mimic MS, -it is MS.

    Scientific publications on Alzheimer’s are of course totally ignored by the Lyme clique of the IDSA. Rightly so, since Lyme is an imaginary disease! Unfortunately for deniers, Pathologist Dr. Alan MacDonald’s and Judith Miklossy’s results have been more recently confirmed by a team based in Philadelphia whose study was published inn 2016 and showed the respective role of spirochetes, biofilm and the immune reaction in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients.

    In CHRONIC, the Hidden Cause of the Autoimmune Pandemic and How to get Healthy Again, [2020] Steven Phillips, MD and Dana Parish make the case that the spread of what the authors call Lyme+, an array of tick-borne pathogens that often infect patients simultaneously, is responsible not just for the more than 400,000 cases of Lyme disease diagnosed each year in the United States but also for an unknown number of chronic infections beyond that — undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and left untreated because of a combination of testing failures, institutional bias and the horrible complexity of the diseases themselves.

    Then further, they argue that most of these cases can be treated effectively. Many people who are told they have a condition that can only be managed, not eliminated — to say nothing of the people told “It’s all in your head” — could claw back toward normalcy, if not always perfect health, with a long-term regimen of oral antibiotics and a doctor who’s willing to work with them to figure out which drug combination works.

    References/ Resources
    1.) CHRONIC, the Hidden Cause of the Autoimmune Pandemic and How to get Healthy Again, Steven Phillips, MD and Dana Parish, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
    2.) Crypto-Infections: Denial, censorship and suppression – the truth about what lies behind chronic disease, Dr. Christian Perronne, Hammersmith Health Books 2021
    3.) Long-Haul Covid and the Chronic Illness Debate, Douthat R, NYT 21-02-02: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/opinion/long-covid-lyme-disease.html


Iris Kulbatski


Iris Kulbatski holds a PhD in Medical Science from the University of Toronto. She is a science writer.

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