November 1, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Rogue Scientists Play Russian Roulette with Humanity

“What were they thinking?” says a leading biologist about
another gain-of-function experiment on coronaviruses

 

Hasn’t the world suffered enough already from this kind of “research”?

Steven Salzberg, a computational biologist at Johns Hopkins University, spoke out against a government-funded project at Boston University that tried to increase the deadliness of coronaviruses.

This study, revealed by the Daily Mail UK on 28 Oct 2022, caused a media uproar because of its potential to create another global pandemic worse than the last one. In lab experiments, 80% of mice died when infected with the modified virus where researchers increased the spike protein’s ability to penetrate cells. The study was funded by NIAID, the NIH division where Tony Fauci had earlier directed funds to the Wuhan Lab in China, where many believe the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Boston University quickly went into damage-control mode in its press office, saying it was not “gain-of-function” research, and that the study could potentially benefit humanity by helping to understand viruses, leading to “better, targeted therapeutic interventions to help fight against future pandemics.”

Salzberg is not buying it. He thinks the research is reckless, unnecessary and dangerous. His opinion is valuable because it was published by the JHU press office, not by journalists on either side of the political aisle. He speaks as a scientist representing many others with his view:

One reason I’m speaking out is I want the public to realize that there are many, many scientists who don’t think this is a good idea. I think we should call it out and say it’s a bad idea. And I’ve been doing so for years and I’m not the only one. Scientists argue and fight over things all the time, and it’s important that we’re open about it. It’s important that the flaws are exposed to the public.

Expert: It’s time to stop creating ‘superbugs’ in the lab  (Johns Hopkins University Hub, 1 Nov 2022). The subtitle of the interview by Saralyn Cruickshank reads, “Johns Hopkins computational biologist Steven Salzberg says controversial Boston University study that created a potentially deadly form of the omicron coronavirus variant should never have happened.”

An expert in genomics, Salzberg has studied the genomes of viruses including influenza and SARS-CoV-2, and has written about gain-of-function research in his regular Forbes column since 2014. He says it is clear that the BU study does qualify as gain-of-function research, and, as such, carries tremendous risks. The Hub reached out to Salzberg, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering, computer science, and biostatistics, for his take on the issue and what should be done to curtail the creation of superbugs in the future.

One of his reasons for rejecting this kind of research is that the superbugs are unnatural. They will never be encountered in the wild, so how can it lead to better therapeutics? Salzberg answered,

Proponents claim it can help us prepare for the next pandemic. That it’ll help us design better vaccines, or help us better understand the pathogenicity of the virus. But these are all just hand-waving arguments. The sort of artificial viruses created in these experiments are not going to look like the viruses that appear in nature. No one’s going to design a vaccine against something that’s been created in a lab. So how is it supposed to help us with vaccine design or pandemic preparation? You’re making some artificial construct that would never have existed otherwise, and no company, no private entity would ever use that as a basis for a vaccine or would ever invest in it. The benefits are, at best, very narrow bits of science that we might understand about virus strains that aren’t natural and won’t really ever occur.

The type of research performed at BU is unnecessary, he continues, because there are other ways to learn about viral infectivity. The CDC and the World Health Organization should ban this kind of research and get an international agreement that “this kind of work is very dangerous and carries pretty minimal benefits.” Such agreements have been made before, such as research on human cloning.

Who needs what BU was researching? No one should take their “tortured reasoning” that it was safe:

These scientists at Boston University, and the university itself, are arguing that it’s not gain-of-function research, because the new recombinant strain was less virulent in mice than the original Wuhan strain, which is true from what we know. But the new strain is in fact much more deadly in mice than one of its source viruses, the omicron strain, and it might very well be more deadly in people, but we’re hopefully not going to find out. They argued this wasn’t gain-of-function research, but that’s just really tortured reasoning.

And the currently circulating strain is omicron, while the Wuhan strain is extinct—it’s not circulating in the population. Therefore the omicron strain is not going to encounter the spike protein of the Wuhan strain—this combination would never occur in nature.

Dr Salzberg is an evolutionist; he says that “viral evolution” occurs when, “by chance, something will happen that makes the new mutated organism a little bit more capable of its functions, and then natural selection allows that organism to multiply and replicate.” Calling this case evolution, though, is a stretch. It is still a coronavirus. It is still the same species. If this qualifies as evolution, can someone claim that women “evolve” when a new hair style fad gets them more dates?

Also, the term “gain of function” should not be taken to mean that Darwinian evolution is capable of improving an organism. Whatever was happening in the BU lab was happening by intelligent design, not by Darwin’s Stuff Happens Law. Intelligent design can sometimes be evil. An evil mind can design a bomb by combining materials that would never come together naturally.

This interview is important to illustrate that Big Science with government funding could destroy the world without a non-evolving virtue: integrity.

Undoubtedly Boston University appealed to NIAID for help with “hand-waving arguments” that their research might lead to “better, targeted therapeutic interventions to help fight against future pandemics.” They should have had the integrity to stop and think that it could also be dangerous. Then, NIAID and the NIH should have had the integrity to be critical of the request and deny it. Not all “scientific research” is worth doing. The “scientific method” is not a mechanical process choosing its own research goals and methods. Human scientists and their human funders need to make righteous decisions about risks and benefits.

We hear another excuse sometimes: “If we don’t do it, America will fall behind, because other countries are doing this kind of research already, and our students will miss out on cutting-edge science.” That’s selfish pragmatism, not honest policy. To the extent scientists gather internationally and discuss such matters, they need the integrity to debate and come to agreement on clear risk/reward ratios, and know when to agree when some kinds of research are too dangerous to pursue. But after three years of suffering that led to millions of deaths and business losses due to the bungling of scientific and government leaders, can you trust the United Nations and World Health Organization now to act with integrity?

No wonder many were shocked to hear about the Boston U study. Even if there was no lab leak in this case, the very idea that scientists and the NIH would pursue such work after all we have been through shows what “tortured reasoning” still goes on in Big Science and Big Government.

An important election is taking place in the USA next Tuesday. Vote for candidates with integrity.

 

 

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