Gain of Function?

by deeg

Last month, a multiday hearing was held in marin county in a lawsuit filed by the sf and marin county public defenders office on behalf of 300 incarcerated people at San Quentin (sq). The lawsuit is based on the failure of the prison administration and the california department of corrections and rehabilitation (cdcr) to take even basic public health measures to protect imprisoned people from COVID.

In May of 2020, 122 people were transferred from the california institute for men in Chino to sq. They had not been recently tested for COVID prior to the transfer, and some of them were infected. The transport from Chino to sq was a perfect opportunity to spread the virus. The people were then placed in a building that also houses people on california’s death row. On learning of this transfer, the marin county health officer tried to get the prison to test the transferred people and separate them from the rest of the population until the results came in. A letter from the health officer described the response:  

This placed all inmates and staff working in that unit at risk, and MCPH recommended mandatory mask wearing and preventing staff who had been exposed from working in other units. MCPH was informed by CDCR that local health officers lack the authority to mandate measures in state-run prisons.

Cdcr also denied requests from local health departments for other prisons. The Prison Law Office has had to go to federal court repeatedly over the past 14 months to get cdcr to require screening, testing, and masking of guards and employees, and to establish functional medical facilities that could separate out infected and non-infected employees and incarcerated people. The letter from marin county details how inadequate the prison’s response was, even after the state set up an “incident command” at the end of June 2020. Cal/OSHA has also issued citations to cdcr at san quentin and other prisons. Cdcr has appealed all of the citations thus blocking enforcement of these requirements.

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California has been one of the states that has offered COVID vaccines to people incarcerated in state prisons, starting in February 2021. As of June 1, cdcr reports that out of the 97 thousand people in its prisons, 68 thousand are fully vaccinated, and 2300 people are partially vaccinated. California’s prisons remain under intense restrictions. However, less than half of california’s 65 thousand prison employees are vaccinated, and remain the main way that COVID is brought into the facilities, which imprison many immune compromised and otherwise vulnerable people.

The COVID Behind Bars Project at the UCLA Law School reports that nationwide less than half of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are vaccinated, with the lowest rates in utah, south carolina, and alabama. (florida and  wyoming haven’t released any prison vaccination information.) cdcr is now offering gift cards and a lottery to encourage employees to accept the vaccines.

Meanwhile, many other countries are struggling to get access to vaccines.  India has been struggling with a massive outbreak and has been able to vaccinate less than five percent of its people. Vaccine producing countries, yielding to pressure from pharmaceutical companies, still have not suspended patents and have not required companies such as pfizer, moderna, and astrazeneca to provide manufacturing information.

Building Better Pathogens?

There are new investigations about whether the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2 (SARS2) was developed in a laboratory, as compared to emerging through natural evolution. Although this initially seemed like the conspiracy “china virus” xenophobic sloganeering of the trump administration, some progressive scientists are now considering whether the Wuhan Institute of Virology developed the virus, as “gain of function” research, at least partly funded by the u.s. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the national institutes of health (NIH).

Gain of function, GoF, is the rather bland name given to the intentional enhancement of viruses (or other pathogens) to make them easier to transmit, or make them capable of causing more serious disease, or spreading to other species. GoF research may involve creating resistance to antivirals, and immunity to existing vaccines to study how the virus gains these functions. In other words, the scientists help the virus or other pathogen to “gain function” at our expense. And apparently with our money.

Is this biological weapons research? Of course not, because biological weapons were banned in 1969 by a treaty signed by 160 nations including the u.s. All, or mostly all, u.s. biological weapons were “destroyed” in 1972. So, what are they doing in GoF? They claim to be “doing basic research” to gain knowledge on how to identify and combat more dangerous bugs that could emerge.

A lot of people don’t really see the point of creating more dangerous viruses, and in 2014 the Cambridge Working Group formed to address the risks of research into “potential pandemic pathogens”. In September 2014, the NIH agreed to a “pause” in funding GoF research and hired gryfon scientific to prepare a “risk-benefit” analysis, which of course concluded there weren’t many significant risks and lots of benefits. I was one of the people contacted by the Cambridge Group to support a permanent end to this funding.

One of the major concerns is the likelihood of accidental releases. Although laboratories are supposed to have biosafety procedures, these procedures are not uniform, and often don’t exist in practice. In the u.s. biosafety level 1 protocols are for non-pathogenic viruses and other agents, that are defined as not causing significant disease to healthy people. Level 4, on the other hand, are safety precautions for pathogens that cause serious illness and/or death and for which there are no effective vaccines or treatment. Levels 3 and 4 are considered “high containment” labs because they require dedicated ventilation systems and other means of preventing pathogens from escaping (secondary containment).

Laboratories that work with certain “select agents” (pathogens like anthrax that are listed as having bioterrorism potential) are required to register with either the CDC or the USDA. There is no unified inspection program even for the registered labs. There are only, depending on how you count, 7-12 level 4 labs in the u.s., most run by the military or government, and there are hundreds of level 3 labs. Many laboratories get around the high containment requirements by defining their research as “lower risk”. For example, when I was working at a Cal/OSHA district office, a company representative told us they were planning to handle a “risk group 3” pathogen at “biosafety level 2+.”  Even the dedicated ventilation systems on high containment labs don’t prevent the pathogen from infecting an employee, who could then spread it in the community.  Labs are supposed to use biosafety cabinets and personal protective equipment to protect employees, but there are few actual legal requirements.

NIH grants include requirements for biosafety practices, but some research at the Wuhan Virology Institute was reportedly funded through a grantee in New York State. Even if it had been in the u.s. that’s no guarantee the Wuhan labs would take appropriate precautions when developing new and potentially dangerous pathogens. The u.s. general accounting office has reported that its investigations over the past two decades found that although there has been an increase in laboratories at biosafety level 3 and 4, there is no coordinated oversight of these labs.

There have been many incidents in which workers were exposed, injured or sickened through the mishandling or accidental release of biological agents. For example, in 2004, workers at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute had to take antibiotics because they had been exposed to a shipment of live anthrax that they had been told was deactivated. In 2015 the u.s. department of defense sent live anthrax spores to labs in all 50 states and nine countries. In 2004 nine laboratory workers in China contracted SARS, and one died. This was the last of 3 reported laboratory infections with SARS in China after community transmission had stopped. In California, a worker in a clinical laboratory contracted brucellosis twice. In 2014 six vials of live smallpox were found in a box in the NIH. (Although smallpox is considered “eradicated” both the u.s. and Russia still keep stocks of the virus, despite international pressure to destroy them.)

An article published by the Union of Atomic Scientists (the same people who do the “doomsday clock”) makes a strong case that SARS2 may have been created in GoF research, and accidentally released into the population when lab workers contracted the virus, possibly due to weak biosafety protocols.  
The article also points out that the “pause” in funding for GoF, which expired in 2017, had a number of loopholes that permitted funding for GoF projects to continue during the “pause” period.

Despite the new investigations, we may never learn the origins of SARS2. The virus may have emerged naturally as it moved through different species. But whatever the origins of SARS2, it seems like a mistake to be intentionally creating more deadly viruses. Nature is working hard enough on its own to kill us.

Author: lagai

LAGAI-Queer Insurrection is one of the oldest radical queer liberation groups in the U.S. We publish UltraViolet, a more or less bimonthly newspaper, which is mailed free of charge to over 1500 people, including over 800 prisoners. Our website is

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