THE CENTER FOR FOOD SAFETY is the kind of organization that most progressive foodies can get behind: Its website features photos of graceful monarch butterflies and dairy cows with big, doleful eyes. Its recent campaigns have implored supporters to “tell EPA to stop this brain-damaging pesticide!” and “protect dolphins and birds from floating factory farms!” It advocates for farmworkers, humane treatment of animals, and protecting pollinators.
Oh, yes, and one more thing: The 24person nonprofit, whose 2019 revenue was about $5 million, wants the US government to stop supporting certain kinds of high-level virology research. In April, the group sued the National Institutes of Health in an attempt to force the agency to reveal information about its funding of so-called gain-of-function research—a category of lab work aimed at understanding how viruses create pandemics. Sometimes, but not always, that means making viruses more virulent and contagious to study how they evolve. Some people have latched onto the idea that scientists engaged in such research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology enhanced a coronavirus that escaped, causing the pandemic. The darkest version of the theory speculates they were making a bioweapon.
In all likelihood, no one will ever know with absolute certainty where the virus came from. Most scientists agree that the United States—which did fund research in Wuhan via NIH grants—and China have failed to complete a sufficient investigation into its origins.
Even in the face of that lack of evidence, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, has made up his mind, saying he “absolutely” thinks the pandemic was the result of an accidental lab release, and that gain-of-function research is too dangerous to pursue.
While most experts agree that some extreme versions of this work are truly reckless, virologists generally say it’s vital for developing tools and knowledge to stop pandemics. But Kimbrell is just one voice in a growing—and left-leaning—chorus that has turned its sights on this keystone of virology. Many organizations that once busied themselves warning the public about chemicals in breakfast cereal and evil deeds by Monsanto have pivoted to assailing gain-of-function research. The Organic Consumers Association, an anti-pesticide and anti–genetic engineering nonprofit, published a “hall of shame” series on virology researchers who use the technique. “As we follow the evidence—and follow the money—we come face to face with a cast of out-of-control Mad Scientists, militarists and biotech/bio-pharmaceutical entrepreneurs,” reads one of its recent posts. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccination group, Children’s Health Defense, has embraced the hypothesis that Chinese experiments supercharged the coronavirus before an escape.
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