Dr. Jordon Trishton Walker, a director of research and development for the Pfizer Corp., recently became an overnight internet sensation.
The reason: In a set of rambling remarks to an undercover Project Veritas reporter, Walker outlined how the company could mutate viruses in a lab and do so to create new vaccines, while speculating on the potential of such a process to be a “cash cow” for the pharmaceutical giant, and presumably others in the industry.
Then, realizing he had been recorded, Walker had a meltdown. It’s not hard to see why.
Said Walker: “One of the things we [Pfizer] are exploring is like, ‘Why don’t we just mutate it [COVID] ourselves so we could create—preemptively develop new vaccines, right? So, we have to do that. If we’re going to do that, though, there’s a risk of like, as you could imagine, no one wants to be having a pharma company mutating f—ing viruses.”
To lay persons, research to “mutate viruses” does sound inherently dangerous—suspiciously like viral “gain of function” research, the kind of research designed to genetically enhance the transmissibility and lethality of the virus and the kind of notorious lab work in Wuhan, China, that may have been the source of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to Walker’s allegations, the Pfizer Corp., without mentioning him by name, denied that it has been conducting “gain of function” or “directed evolution” research:
Working with collaborators, we have conducted research where the original SARS-CoV-2 virus has been used to express the spike protein from new variants of concern. This work is undertaken once a new variant of concern has been identified by public health authorities.
This research provides a way for us to rapidly assess the ability of an existing vaccine to induce antibodies that neutralize a newly identified variant of concern.
We then make this data available through peer-reviewed scientific journals and use it as one of the steps to determine whether a vaccine update is required.
Pfizer claims it is operating within the law. In its response, the company notes that federal regulations require such lab work to identify potential resistance to a therapeutic; in this case, Paxlovid, the most prominent therapeutic to treat COVID-19.
With a naturally evolving virus, it is important to routinely assess the activity of an antiviral. Most of this work is conducted using computer simulations or mutations of the main protease, a non-infectious part of the virus.
In a limited number of cases when a full virus does not contain any known “gain of function” mutations, such virus may be engineered to enable the assessment of antiviral activity in cells.
In those “limited” cases, Pfizer says, these “mutation” experiments are conducted in a secure lab to determine potential viral resistance. Furthermore, the company again emphasizes, “It is important to note that these studies are required by U.S. and global regulators for all antiviral products and are carried out by many companies and academic institutions in the U.S. and around the world.”
Rather than just assuming Pfizer’s representations are truthful, congressional investigators should verify the company’s claims. Lawmakers need to subpoena Dr. Walker, the appropriate Pfizer executives, and the relevant documents from the corporation.
Beyond that, they should drill down on several pressing policy questions.
First, is Pfizer’s distinction between its “limited” viral mutation experiments and “gain of function” or “directed evolution” research—the kinds of research that the company denies conducting—a difference without a distinction?
Is there a difference, for example, between “gain of function” research on viruses that exist in nature to make them more contagious or lethal to human, and inducing lab mutations of a pathogen already infecting millions of humans to enhance the power of vaccines or therapeutics?
Does a researcher’s intent make a legal difference?
Second, is there a difference in the risk to the public from a “gain of function” research effort to enhance the transmissibility or lethality of a pathogen in nature and an experimental mutation of a virus, as acknowledged by Pfizer, to enhance vaccines or therapeutics.
Presumably, a lab leak could prove disastrous in either case.
Third, is Pfizer “optimizing” this COVID “mutation” process? And if so, why? In his remarks to the reporter, Walker said, “From what I’ve heard is (sic), [Pfizer scientists] are optimizing it, but they are going slow because everyone is very cautious. Obviously, they don’t want to accelerate it too much. I think they are also just trying to do it as an exploratory thing because you obviously don’t want to advertise that you are figuring out future mutations.”
Fourth, are existing federal regulations governing such pharmaceutical research studies that Pfizer cites sufficient to ensure public safety and protection from the kind of viral manipulation that Walker suggested in his remarks to Project Veritas?
The questions are particularly relevant considering two recent developments within the Biden administration.
First, the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently found that National Institute of Health officials bypassed a critical HHS review of coronavirus research conducted by the EcoHealth Alliance, the firm at the heart of the debate over the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic in China.
In its report, the Office of the Inspector General found several deficiencies, and concluded: “Based on these findings, we conclude that NIH missed opportunities to more effectively monitor research. With improved oversight, NIH may have been able to take more timely corrective actions to mitigate the inherent risks associated with this type of research.”
Second, an expert panel of advisers to the NIH recently issued a comprehensive report on laboratory safety and made 13 findings and 13 recommendations to enhance government oversight over scientific research on dangerous pathogens, including “gain of function” studies.
Their primary finding was that there should be a “department-level” review of these research projects and a broader definition of the pathogens that could lead to a pandemic. Though the recommendations were unanimous, they were not without controversy within the scientific community. Congress, obviously, needs to review this recent report.
The COVID-19 experience has taught us many hard lessons. To prepare for the next medical crisis, Congress needs to thoroughly probe the weaknesses in the federal government’s response to the pandemic.
A top-line lesson is that lawmakers cannot simply depend upon government administrators to do the right thing.
The American people need peace of mind, not lax oversight over either corporate executives or government officials.
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