Gaining Function

So, you’ve heard about this thing called “Gain of Function” research, right? It’s one of those phrases that sounds like it came straight out of a science fiction novel, or maybe something a mad scientist in a cartoon would shout about while lightning crackles in the background. “Gain of function! My creation will now gain function!” But no, this is real life, folks, and it’s just as mystifying as it sounds.

Now, for those of you who might not spend your free time reading up on virology – and I’m going to take a wild guess and say that’s most of us – gain of function research is a bit like giving a virus a gym membership and a personal trainer. The idea is that by beefing up these viruses, making them stronger or more transmissible, scientists can get ahead of the game. It’s like they’re trying to predict how a virus might evolve by evolving it themselves, then racing to figure out how to stop it. You know, just in case it decides to break out and start a global tour.

Now, you might be thinking, “That sounds risky,” and you’d be right. But here’s the kicker: those involved in this kind of research, they’re playing a high-stakes game. And not just any game – it’s the kind where if your proposal is accepted, your lab gets millions of dollars to work on research for a novel purpose that in the end might not have any applicability. Funding flows like water, and your career shoots off like a rocket. But if you lose, well, it’s not really you who pays the price, is it? No, that honor goes to the public, the folks who never signed up for this game in the first place.

It’s a peculiar situation, isn’t it? The risk is public, but the gain, oh, the gain is very much private. Scientists and institutions dabbling in gain of function research get the glory, the grants, and the glossy magazine covers. There will be a new vaccine to patent. Meanwhile, Joe Public gets to lay awake at night wondering if the next global pandemic is brewing in a lab somewhere, ready to make the leap from Petri dish to people.

In 2018, EcoHealth Alliance asked DARPA for money to insert a furin cleavage site at the S1, S2 junction of a coronavirus at the Wuhan lab.

In 2019, the first coronavirus to ever contain a furin cleavage site at the S1, S2 junction emerged in Wuhan, China

Here we are, fiddling around with viruses like they’re Legos, hoping we don’t accidentally build the Death Star instead of a cute little space cruiser. What a gamble for novel complexity for the primary purpose of advancing one’s career. It’s like we’re in a casino, betting all our chips on red, except if red comes up, everyone outside the casino gets the flu.

And let’s not forget about the sheer, unadulterated optimism involved in this process. You’ve got to admire the confidence of someone who looks at a deadly virus and thinks, “Yeah, I can make this thing more dangerous, and everything will be just fine.” It’s the kind of optimism that makes you want to check if they’ve got all their marbles in the right place.

But here’s the thing: this isn’t a game of darts at the pub, where the worst that happens is you miss the board and hit the wall. We’re talking about fiddling with the fundamental building blocks of nature, playing with fire without being entirely sure where all the exits are. And when the potential consequence is a deadly pandemic, well, you’ve got to start asking if the shot is worth taking.

You’ve got these scientists in their labs, mixing and matching viruses like they’re at some kind of genetic cocktail party, all in the name of staying one step ahead of Mother Nature. But then, there’s this whisper going around, a little rumor that another lab leak might be just around the corner. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s an important election coming up.

Now, the plot thickens because, as luck would have it, a lot of folks have gotten quite cozy with the idea of working from home. Remember the trial pandemic run we all had? Well, it turns out we’re like seasoned pros now, ready for the extended lockdown leagues. And what better time to flex our remote living skills than during an election season?

Oh, but it gets better. Because, you see, with everyone hunkered down in their living rooms, we’ve got the perfect setup for a mail-in ballot extravaganza. And who wouldn’t trust that process to be the pinnacle of security and honesty? It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse security upgrade. Sure, there might need to be a few pauses in counting the votes, just to make sure everything is “fortified” for the right outcome. It’s all about making sure democracy works, right? Even if that means making democracy work a little harder to get where some folks think it needs to go.

But let’s circle back to our friends in the labs for a moment. These gain of function gurus, they’re not just playing with fire; they’re juggling flaming torches while riding a unicycle on a tightrope. And all this, mind you, while the rest of us are down below, looking up and wondering if we should have brought umbrellas. Because if one of those torches happens to slip—well, we’ve seen that movie before, haven’t we?

Another lab leak coming soon would make sense with an important election coming up and the leading candidate expected to curtail the influence of the ruling class. They’ll shift it to mail-in ballots and drop boxes, trusting of course that this will be the most secure and honest election ever, perhaps with a few pauses in counting the votes to ensure it is fortified for the desired outcome.

You remember those drop boxes, don’t you? They popped up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, ready to collect your vote as conveniently as dropping off a Netflix DVD back when that was a thing. And then, oh boy, a few videos started coming out. You know the ones – where it looked like Santa Claus was making a few extra stops stuffing those boxes with more ballots than you’d find socks in a teenager’s room.

Now, I don’t know about you, but it made me think. If the old tactic was to round up busloads of folks who might not even know what day it was to cast their votes, this new strategy was like hitting the jackpot. Why bother with the bus when you can just flood the system with ballots as anonymous as the guy who always shows up to family reunions, and no one knows how he’s related?

But really – who’s to judge? As long as it’s playing by the rules, it’s all fair game, right? And let’s not kid ourselves, the stakes are higher than a stoner on a space station. We’re talking about the power to steer the government’s mighty ship, and with it, billions of dollars in the direction of whoever’s got the best map. The only chance for democracy to work is to have an informed electorate, and we’ve never been so far from that aspiration. Maybe soliciting the votes of the uninformed, stupid, hysterical, and illiterate doesn’t result in better decision making.

Under this system, it’s all for sale. Every company, every interest group, is throwing down big money, not just tossing coins into the wishing well of democracy, but making calculated investments. They’re betting on the chance to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of those who write the laws, and the rate of return on these investments would make Wall Street blush. It turns out, buying influence is cheaper than a clearance sale at a dollar store.

And all this time, we’ve been sitting in front of our TVs, watching these government officials being paraded around with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding. We thought they were the cream of the crop, the best and brightest, when in reality, they’re more like those televangelists who promise salvation for the low, low price of your entire life savings. But there’s not much salvation as they’re selling off bits and pieces of democracy to the highest bidder.

You ever notice how everything these days seems to be about finding the most complicated way to do something pretty simple? Remember when voting meant you just showed up, ticked a box, and went home? Maybe you got a sticker if you were lucky. Now, we’ve got mail-in ballots and drop boxes, making it feel more like we’re sending off a secret message in a spy movie than participating in democracy. “Make sure this gets to the right hands,” we whisper to the mailbox, like it’s a matter of national security.

The thing is, maybe we’re overthinking it. Maybe, instead of trying to outsmart ourselves with virus research that sounds more like a plot to a bad science fiction movie, we should focus on keeping things straightforward. And as for voting, what happened to counting the votes the same day as the election? We all know it shouldn’t take weeks to count or be interrupted to dump hundreds of thousands of new votes delivered in the middle of the night. For comparison, even places with more goats than people manage to pull off elections without turning it into a season of “The Amazing Race.”

It’s like we’re so focused on “fortifying” everything – from elections to our immune systems – that we forget the beauty of simplicity. We’re so worried about making sure everything goes the way the folks in the shadows want it that we forget about what the average Joe wants. You know, the guy who just wants to cast his vote without needing a degree in cryptography or worrying that his choice of leadership gets lost in the mail like a bad birthday card.

In the end, maybe the real gain of function we need isn’t about making viruses more powerful or finding new ways to complicate voting. Maybe it’s about gaining the ability to remember that sometimes, the best way to do something is the simplest way that gets it done right. The way that doesn’t require a team of scientists or a squadron of secret ballot collectors. The way that just makes sense.

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