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Gain-of-function Research

  • 21 Jun 2021
  • 4 min read

Why in News

The Wuhan Institute of Virology was said to have conducted gain-of-function research on coronaviruses which may possibly have caused the lab-leak origin of the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19 pandemic).

Key Points

  • Gain-of-function Research:
    • About:
      • In virology, gain-of-function research involves deliberately altering an organism in the lab, altering a gene, or introducing a mutation in a pathogen to study its transmissibility, virulence and immunogenicity.
      • This is done by genetically engineering the virus and by allowing them to grow in different growth mediums, a technique called serial passage.
        • Serial Passage refers to the process of growing bacteria or a virus in iterations. For instance, a virus may be grown in one environment, and then a portion of that virus population can be removed, and put into a new environment.
    • Significance:
      • This would allow researchers to study potential therapies and ways to control the disease better in future.
      • Gain-of-function studies, which enhance viral yield and immunogenicity (relating to immune response), are required for vaccine development.
  • Issues:
    • Gain-of-function research involves manipulations that make certain pathogenic microbes more deadly or more transmissible.
    • There is also ‘loss-of-function’ research, which involves inactivating mutations, resulting in a significant loss of original function, or no function to the pathogen.
      • When mutations occur, they alter the structure of the virus, resulting in altered functions which might weaken the virus or enhance its function.
    • Gain-of-function research reportedly carry inherent biosafety and biosecurity risks and are thus referred to as ‘dual-use research of concern’ (DURC).
      • This indicates that while the research may result in benefits for humanity, there is also the potential to cause harm — accidental or deliberate escape of these altered pathogens from labs may even cause pandemics (Like it is said to be in case of Covid-19).
  • Situation in India:
    • All activities related to genetically engineered organisms or cells and hazardous microorganisms and products are regulated as per the “Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms/Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells Rules, 1989”.
    • In 2020, the Department of Biotechnology issued guidelines for the establishment of containment facilities, called ‘Biosafety labs’.
      • The notification provides operational guidance on the containment of biohazards and levels of biosafety that all institutions involved in research, development and handling of these microorganisms must comply with.
  • Debate over Gain-of-function:
    • Proponents:
      • It makes science and governments battle-ready for future pandemics.
      • Proponents of gain-of-function research believe that “nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead”.
    • Critic:
      • After the Covid-19 pandemic, more concerns are raised on carrying out such kinds of research.
      • This may cause the extinction of the living things or may change their genetic makeup forever.

Way Forward

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) should lead activities on DURC.
  • There should be responsible use of life sciences research, focusing on mitigation and prevention of bio-risks and associated ethical issues.
  • Develop a Global Guidance Framework for countries to follow.
  • There is a need to ensure greater transparency about such research.


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