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.