First global study reveals which countries perform the most gain-of-function experiments – and number one might shock you

  • The US and China were involved in most gain- and loss-of-function research
  • A quarter of the research related to vaccine development and testing
  • READ MORE: What is gain-of-function research?

No country in the world has done more controversial virus tinkering research than America.

A first-of-its-kind study analyzed gain-of-function experiments – in which pathogens are made more contagious or deadly – ​​conducted worldwide since 2000.

Supporters say the tests help science get ahead of future outbreaks, but critics say the risks of a leak outweigh the potential benefits.

The research shows that more than 7,000 studies on GOF or loss of function – which make viruses weaker – have been conducted over the past two decades, with the US involved in more than half, followed by China (21 percent).

Many scientists believe that Covid was the product of a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, where scientists, with the help of US research grants, conducted gain-of-function experiments on bat coronaviruses closely related to Covid.

The map above shows the percentages of gain- and loss-of-function research involving each country

The study, conducted by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, used artificial intelligence to scan 159,000 pieces of scientific literature to find out where and how often GOF and LOF studies are conducted.

They found that approximately 7,000 studies contained this type of research and randomly chose 1,000 to manually search, leaving 488 publications.

Of this literature, 25 percent involved GOF work alone, 29 percent involved both GOF and LOF, and 46 percent involved LOF research alone.

When examining which pathogens were tested the most, the team found that 64 percent were viruses. Nine percent of those viruses belonged to the Coronaviridae family, which also includes coronaviruses. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is a new strain of coronavirus in the Coronaviridae family.

Other viruses examined were influenza (21 percent) and herpes (14 percent).

And 24 percent of the studies involved vaccine development or testing.

The Georgetown team also looked at the risk each pathogen posed to humans and found that only a small proportion of studies included pathogens dangerous enough to require the strictest biosecurity measures in laboratories.

Most pathogens, 58 percent, posed a moderate risk to humans. A quarter of the pathogens studied were described as ‘agents capable of causing serious and potentially fatal infections’.

One percent of the studies concerned the most risky pathogens “which pose a high individual risk of life-threatening illness from infectious aerosols and for which no treatment is available.” These include Ebola and smallpox.

Examples of gain-of-function research the team found included infecting mice with the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause pneumonia.

This bacterium does not normally infect mice naturally, but researchers used it to investigate how the bacterium interacts with a host in an animal system.

In a gain-and-loss-of-function study that took place at the same time, scientists altered multiple strains of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus, which can cause lung infections, to investigate what makes the fungus resistant to antifungal treatments.

Some of the new strains scientists created grew faster in mice than in animals infected with the original strain.

The politicized debate over the origins of Covid has made the topic of GOF research a serious point of contention, with one camp speculating that the virus came from animals and another stating that the virus came from a laboratory that conducted GOF studies .

Anna Puglisi, a biotechnologist and policy specialist at Georgetown who co-authored the report, said, “There’s so much discussion and hype about gain-of-function research, but what does it really look like?”

Getting an answer to that question is “the only way you can begin to understand what the real risk is of both not regulating and over-regulating,” she added.