Critics of SARS-CoV2 research decry the use of the gain-of-function experiments used to study viruses. Such experiments are designed to test how changes in DNA sequence relate to enhanced activity of a gene product on biology, or in this case, the function of a virus. Mutation of viral DNA may lead to enhanced transmissibility, infectivity, pathogenesis, or lethality, among other effects.
That is exactly why researchers perform gain-of-function experiments in the safety of a laboratory setting. By understanding the biology in controlled circumstances scientists can better prepare to address the virus if it naturally becomes problematic in a population.
Yet critics of gain-of-function research say it is dangerous and unnecessary.
And the same critics are also the least likely to be vaccinated.
The unvaccinated say they don’t want to be part of an experiment.
By failing to be vaccinated, they have become the experiment.
This is the profound irony. Demographic analysis tells us that those refusing vaccination are the most likely to sequester in small towns, churches and political rallies. They participate in work and social functions as though the virus is not a threat. Few masks, little distance, limited isolation, life as usual. They are a gain-of- function experiment, a spawning ground to test effects of new mutations.
In the lab, prescribed changes may be made in DNA precisely, and the effects can be followed in laboratory animals.
Outside the lab, the virus replicates furiously in the body. The body produces hundreds of billions of viral particles. Each round of replication is slightly imprecise, potentially introducing random errors into the newly-produced viruses. Most mutations have no effect. Others negatively affect the virus, its transmissibility, infectivity, or pathogenesis. We don’t ever see these viruses in populations because they are a biological dead end.
But occasionally a mutation arises that bestows gain-of-function. When that newly-enabled virus escapes containment in a maskless breath, it may gain a foothold in a population, and become a new “variant of concern”.
We are learning about enhanced viral function by studying the new variants that exploit willing populations.
There is no question that vaccine denial follows political and regional trends. These areas are the breeding grounds for new variants. It is the most extensive viral gain-of-function experiment ever performed.
And remarkably people are willing to participate.
Please get vaccinated.