But at the same time, the documents do give us a look into the work that was going on in Wuhan. The lab first demonstrated that genetically altered coronaviruses (none of them known human pathogens) had varying levels of infectiousness and pathogenecity in mice that had the human ACE2 receptor added to their genomes. Some were less dangerous, and some were more. The study’s intention does not explicitly seem to have been looking for gain-of-function, but in an experiment like this you would expect a spread of results, which is exactly what they got. The latest papers detail results up through 2019, and this involves work on the 2003 MERS coronavirus (which was much deadlier to those infected with it than the current pathogen is). The lab swapped the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the MERS virus with the RBDs of a number of other wild-type coronaviruses. That’s work that the EcoHealth Alliance had previously said was only proposed and not actually carried out, a statement that is now “inoperative”, as they used to say in the Nixon administration. Robert Kessler of the EHA had also told the Intercept previously that all the work they funded was on bat coronaviruses, not human ones, and that no human pathogens were involved. Both those statements would now seem to be in flames as well. MERS is a human pathogen, and domain-swapping on its receptor-binding domain would also be expected to yield a spread of results in animal models – some milder, some with little change, and some worse. You cannot rule that last possibility out.
The difference between gain of function research and research that would be expected to yield results showing gain of function in some cases is a subtle one. But that is apparently where the NIH has decided to make its stand. Principle Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak said that “As sometimes occurs in science, this was an unexpected result of the research, rather than something the researchers set out to do”, but he also just said in a letter to Rep. James Comer that EHA had “failed to report” on this work as required and the agency is giving the EHA five days to turn over all other such documents and unpublished results. Implying that We are very concerned about this work that does not warrant the level of concern that people are giving it is not a very good place to stand, either, it seems to me.