On reading Virology in Peril and the Greater Risk To Science by Michael J. Imperiale, Arturo Casadevall, Felicia D. Goodrum, Stacey Schultz-Cherry. mSphere, vol 8, #1, December 15, 2022.

Sunset near Marseille, oil on canvas, Charles Signoret (1867-1932)


This paper appeals for thought. As the stakes are high for virology, without question the Queen of biological sciences, On reading will have a modest try.

Obviously, virology is best done by virologists. They know the language and wield the techniques to extract answers. The older folks have the long view, know the pitfalls and the difficulties in distinguishing between pet hypotheses and data.

Yet there are times when virology confronts issues of intense interest to society. HIV/AIDS was a big one, the COVID pandemic even bigger, while vaccines are regularly in the news. Experience shows two approaches to handling them, the first being ‘we’re the scientists, let us handle this, we know what we’re doing’ – as indeed they do. The second is to engage critics and the interested parties including the press and try and explain what is obvious for the virologist and, less reassuringly but importantly, what they don’t know.

The first was used by scientists when Mad Cow Disease hit the UK. Source? The late Bob May who was Chief Scientific Officer to the UK government at the time. He also said that in retrospect it wasn’t the way to go. The second approach was especially difficult during the first 14 years of HIV/AIDS which were between bleak and black.

Actually, the HIV/AIDS community initially took the ‘we know what we’re doing’ approach, backed promising a vaccine in 2 years, only to be burned, forced to flip and play open house. Activists gave plenary talks at the huge annual AIDS meeting and the field was far better for it.

Unfortunately, this example is rare. When the GOF controversy erupted in late 2011 the flu virus community was unable to explain the benefits of their work. Critics who wanted to know why they were deliberately making new human respiratory viruses out of bird flu viruses were dismissed. It transpires that 12 years later, the potential harm remains while the benefits have evaporated. This happens. Science needs time.

The ‘why make novel human viruses’ question was legitimate particularly for the layman. After all, from Pasteur on, researchers have been beating the hell out of microbes. Still are. The GOF controversy was a clear moment where virologists had to engage. And they failed. Of course, the COVID pandemic discombobulated the globe with absolutely everything being in the public domain. HIV/AIDS x100.

The authors of Virology in Peril are all Editors-in-Chief of journals from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) which, in the past, has defended the GOF research of Drs. Fouchier and Kawaoka. We learn that virology finds itself under attack. The bulk of this attack comes under the guise of concern about gain-of-function (GOF) research and persistent concerns about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. As mentioned above, virologists didn’t do a good job over GOF research, so criticism, not attack, is indeed justified. The guise of concern? Some critics made an effort.

Don’t mix the GOF controversy and the origins of the COVID virus. The SARS-CoV-2 lab leak hypothesis never required prior GOF research. The connection was made because of a previous publication on bat coronaviruses from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as well as the US funded project involving risky GOF research that DARPA turned down. While these facts don’t prove the hypothesis, they provoke and encourage questions. Nobody can fault people for making a connection.

Even though there was only a single published SARS-CoV-2 genome by the first weeks of 2020 two groups of virologists, for the most part, went on the offensive with papers stomping on the lab leak heresy.

Yet within a few years this heresy had morphed into a credible hypothesis – at least according to recent remarks by Drs. Fauci and Collins. Clearly science needs time. The trashing was unwarranted and immature.

Two points. First, since when did scientists use established journals to stomp on social media? Furthermore, is it effective? Freedom of speech is a First Amendment right although there are occasions when you wonder.

Second, the conflicts of interest, hidden agendas, and lack of conviction associated with the two papers were slowly exposed. Even today the head of the WHO has said that data is lacking, as did a majority of infectious disease scientists in a recent opinion poll. Despite this the two papers have not been retracted.

Such perilous posturing on behalf of scientists in high profile journals plays into the hands of those who may just want to hear their voices or who have other agendas. So it is not surprising the authors write that If we cannot trust and support the scientists who strive each day to help us be better prepared for the next outbreak or pandemic we surrender our future to the threat from nature, and we argue that we are doomed to have pathogens control us, rather than vice versa. Unnecessarily melodramatic, yet you reap what you sow. Groups like DRASTIC and USRTK have been exploring the lab leak hypothesis and have been on top of a number of arguments.

On reading had problems with We should clearly delineate the benefits of the research that we perform, including explaining why GOF is the preferred approach to reaping those benefits in those cases where it is. Twelve years on, GOF research à la Fouchier and Kawaoka neither delivered on the promises of the day nor provided anything of use to public health. More recent studies have shown that recent H5N1 bird flu viruses are not mammalian transmissible (Getting it right). If by GOF you mean the classical definition, this was never the issue and has been addressed (Deconstructing the portrait).

Second, we call on the community that has been advocating for a stop to all gain-of-function research to ask itself similar questions. Again, On reading’s humble opinion is that the flu community failed to engage so endangering virology. Peter Sandman, a risk management consultant and not a virologist, took a look at the H5N1 controversy. One of his many points was, The scientific community never really sought public engagement on the H5N1 research controversy? Its preferred option would have been to ignore the public, but it was forced to retreat to its second choice; to educate the public. Listening to the public wasn’t really on the agenda (A rough sanding).



COVID origins could not have been more badly handled by virologists. Arguments of authority don’t work. If anything, they encourage reactions. Again, open discussion is needed among virologists while transparency and pedagogy are needed. And if that takes time, so be it.

The last paragraph is an appeal to all and anyone to intervene to tone down the noise. Unfortunately, as often happens in public debates involving issues of consequence, a much smaller number of people at the far extremes seem to have the loudest voices and the attention of the public via the media sources noted above. By definition, the uncontrollable are just that, so don’t even try to settle with them. Dialogue with the well informed few who have been pointing out that GOF virology à la Fouchier & Kawaoka was a charade. Advance by engaging.

All scientists and the public at large have a stake in the outcome of the current controversy. It’s not that bad! However, it illustrates the difficulty these authors have in engaging with anybody. Remember, if the rambunctious HIV/AIDS crowd of yesteryear could do it, then it’s doable.

Unable to find a way to communicate the article finishes There could hardly be a worse outcome as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with an increased appreciation of the infectious disease risks that nature has in store for us. 1) Exactly. 2) You reap what you sow. 3) We’re part of nature, and nobody has an opt out card.

Dear reader, we were incredibly lucky that a COVID vaccine was developed and deployed so fast. The next pandemic could be sparked by a virus which belongs to a group for which we’ve not had much success making a vaccine – for example HIV despite 40 years of trying. Or hepatitis C virus.

The number of deaths per million infected could easily be higher than for COVID-19. As these are real possibilities, and not science fiction, it is perhaps better to say things as they are, even if they create angst.

When virology and society next engage as they surely will, we must embrace data, be transparent and avoid perilous posturing. Like firefighters, virology and industry will do their level best to put out the fire. It’s what they do. Horsemen, pass by.



Aside 1

While the agent of Mad Cow Disease was a prion and not a virus, Nobel Stanley Prusiner told On reading over 30 years ago that virologists were some of the few who did not dismiss his ideas out of hand.


Aside 2

Tuberculosis has killed more than one billion humans followed by smallpox, malaria and plague.


Aside 3

This article was published in three ASM journals, the Journal of Virology, mBio and mSphere which is unusual. Only the mSphere url is cited.


Aside 4

Virology is such a glorious subject, the Queen of the biological sciences, it’s sad it’s being undermined from within.