This story usefully outlines the controversy which underlies the Rand Paul/Anthony Fauci video posted here yesterday. The controversy can be distilled to a single question: Did the National Institutes of Health fund gain-of-function research at the virology lab in Wuhan?
The answer, it turns out, depends on how you define “gain-of-function research.”
To the scientist, gain-of-function refers to modifying a natural virus so that is has capabilities which nature didn’t give it. Notice, however, that research to support that objective isn’t limited to just the act of modifying a virus. First, the scientist must identify candidate viruses to be modified, catalog their functions, and discover how those functions operate. All of these activities could be described as gain-of-function research, even though no gain of function is ever produced.
To the NIH bureaucrat, gain-of-function research refers to any research prohibited by a federal ban enacted in 2014: “Specifically, the funding pause [ban] will apply to gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.”
To the ethicist, gain-of-function research refers to any viral intervention with a known risk of going catastrophically awry.
Thus, each user of the term has his own fuzzy language/logic puzzles to deal with. The NIH bureaucrats, however, face a special, practical problem: Did they break the law?