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Implications of evolutionary unpredictability for gain-of-function research
  1. Riaan Van der Walt
  1. Department of Philosophy, Practical and Systematic Theology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Riaan Van der Walt, University of South Africa, Pretoria 0002, South Africa; Deep6red{at}

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With the controversy surrounding the outbreak of SARS-Cov-2 (COVID-19), a critical eye has been placed on the activity of so-called ‘gain-of-function’ research. This particular matter comes to light as a result of contentions surrounding the supposed involvement of a laboratory in China that was conducting gain-of-function research on Viruses that are related to the COVID-19 virus.1

This form of research is often critiqued for the potential hazards it poses in the form of viruses developing unintended characteristics, potentially becoming more dangerous than they otherwise would.2 However, what is less often criticised is the degree of efficacy presented by this type of research in light of the essentially unpredictable nature of viral evolution.

Specifically, there is a problem regarding the use of gain of function research in regards to its efficacy in producing effective counter measures such as vaccines, outbreak forecasting and other treatments. While there certainly are useful applications for gain-of-function research, this manuscript aims to question the use of gain-of-function research for the purposes of developing treatments to potentially pathogenic virus species.

What is gain-of-function research, and how does it relate to virology?

The aim of gain-of-function research is to cause organisms to develop new traits and characteristics through the application of human induced selective pressures.3 To wit, organisms are exposed to artificial pressures (eg, toxins) in hopes that they will develop particular genetic responses to those pressures (eg, toxin resistance, as illustrated in figure 1). Research such as this is used to genetically engineer organisms, creating drought resistant plants or creating mosquitoes that are less prone to spreading disease.2

Figure 1

‘Mega plate’, Science.13This still illustrates gain-of-function research of a kind. Here bacteria are shown to grow to survive in logarithmically increasing concentrations of antibiotics, as indicated by the dark opaque areas becoming transparent and clear.

When applied to the study of a potentially pathogenic …

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  • Contributors RVdW is the sole author and contributor to this manuscript. Individuals acknowledged in the manuscript acted in an inspirational and editorial capacity alone, and had no influence over the direction or conclusions presented in the manuscript.

  • Funding This manuscript was completed using the private funds of the author.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.