The 19th century author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in 1818, at the age of 21, wrote, Frankenstein, sometimes called the “Modern Prometheus”, considered by many the first science fiction novel. The book was an instant success with various depictions continuing to this day (Ref.1). But why this success lasting over 200 years and is there a lesson for our time? eNotes, posits that the book raises the issue that we must be careful how we use science, not to “interfere with natural processes,” (in certain circustances) and that there can be an over confidence in one’s capabilities as well as a lack of humility (Ref.2). Similar thinking may be applied to viral “gain-of-function” research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in sites both in the U.S. and internationally, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
“Gain-of-Function” research began as an attempt by the NIH to combat the various episodic viral contagions that cause serious human diseases. Since its inception it has been extremely controversial. These methods use modern molecular biology techniques to intentionally modify the genetics of a virus to make it more infectious and pathogenic to humans. The rationale was that human created changes to the viral genome causing it to be more lethal could give insights to better combat the virus if these changes occurred in nature. There would be no guarantee however, that changes humans created would be the same that took place under natural conditions. A major concern was that a modified virus escape from a laboratory could lead to a deadly pandemic (Ref.3). This research raised the same questions of appropriateness, brought to the fore by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The idea that a leak from the WIV as the cause of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is gaining increasing credibility because of much circumstantial and genetic evidence (Ref.4,5). Unfortunately, many virologists engaged in this type of research have a conflict of interest regarding SARS-CoV-2 being manmade and emanating from a laboratory. If this scenario would be accepted as the most likely possibility, all funding for this work would and should cease.
As far back as 2011, Dr. Fauci, director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the NIH which had been a major funder of “gain-of-function” research, was the lead author of an editorial along with Drs. Nabel and Collins (NIH Director) titled, A flu virus risk worth taking, in which he strongly defended the value of genetically creating more dangerous viruses (Ref.6). In rebuttal a week later, the NYTimes published an editorial, An Engineered Doomsday saying, “We nearly always champion unfettered scientific research and open publication of the results. In this case it looks like the research should never have been undertaken because the potential harm is so catastrophic and the potential benefits from studying the virus so speculative” (Ref.7). Despite serious apprehensions by many qualified scientists and even after a moratorium, NIH funding for “gain-of-function” research continued in this country and abroad. This despite that mRNA vaccines can be quickly created to fight any new viral threat, with the biggest delay to immunizing the public coming from the FDA approval process and its required voluminous data. These technologies negate any rationale for “gain-of-function” research with its inherent dangers. In spite of these advances, Dr. Fauci remains a defender of supporting the Wuhan laboratory (Ref. 8).
This most likely manmade viral catastrophe resulted from ignoring the admonitions raised centuries before by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
1. People, Mary Shelley, British Library, available at: https://www.bl.uk/people/mary-shelley# (Accessed June 1, 2021
2. eNotes.com, What is the moral lesson of Frankenstein? Available at: – https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-is-the-moral-lesson-of-frankenstein-2459694 (Accessed June 1, 2021
3. Letter To The Editor, Lynn C. Klotz, “Danger of Potential-Pandemic-Pathogen Research Enterprises,” mbio.asm.org, May/June 2015 Vol. 6(3), available at: https://mbio.asm.org/content/mbio/6/3/e00815-15.full.pdf (Accessed Jan.22, 2021)
4. The Editorial Board, The Virus Lab Theory’s New Credibility, The Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2021, available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-virus-lab-theorys-new-credibility-11622066808 (Accessed May 28, 2021)
5. Steven Quay And Richard Muller, The Science Suggests a Wuhan Lab Leak, The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2021, available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-science-suggests-a-wuhan-lab-leak-11622995184 (Accessed June 8, 2021)
6. Opinion, Anthony S. Fauci, Gary J. Nabel and Francis S. Collins, “A flu virus risk worth taking,” The Washington Post, December 30, 2011, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-flu-virus-risk-worth-taking/2011/12/30/gIQAM9sNRP_story.html (Accessed Jan. 22, 2012)
7. Opinion – Editorial, An Engineered Doomsday, The New York Times, Jan. 7, 2012, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/opinion/sunday/an-engineered-doomsday.html (Accessed Jan.21, 2021)
8. Alexander Nazaryan, Fauci defends cooperation with Chinese lab to study coronavirus origins, YAHOO NEWS, May 25, 2021, available at: https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/medical/fauci-defends-cooperation-with-chinese-lab-to-study-coronavirus-origins/ar-AAKnmZ1?ocid=BingNewsSearch (Accessed June 5, 2021)