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Gain-of-function research is work that’s reasonably expected to make a pathogen more virulent or transmissible.
Pfizer denied doing gain-of-function research while developing its COVID-19 vaccine, and an expert told PolitiFact he agreed with Pfizer’s assessment.
A conservative group known for using deceptive tactics released video footage that sparked these claims about Pfizer’s research. The video purported to show an employee saying that Pfizer had considered doing research that would potentially mutate the virus that causes COVID-19 in order to preemptively develop vaccines.
Over three years of the pandemic, scientists have worked to better understand the virus that causes COVID-19 so they could develop vaccines and treatments.
A new claim going around the internet takes a more nefarious view, saying that in a quest for profit, vaccine researchers tried to make the virus more dangerous.
"Wait, Pfizer just got caught doing gain of function to mutate covid intentionally for new vaccines???" read a screenshot shared to Instagram on Jan. 29. "Why aren’t they arrested yet? This is even worse than what the conspiracy theorists warned about."
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
The screenshot featured a Jan. 26 tweet by Peter Imanuelsen, a Swedish conservative political commentator and freelance journalist with a large Twitter following. That popular tweet seems to refer to video footage recently released by Project Veritas.
(Screenshot from Instagram.)
Project Veritas is a conservative organization known for using deceptive tactics to obtain secretly recorded videos that they edit in misleading ways and then publish.
On Jan. 25, Project Veritas released video footage showing someone it identified as Jordon Trishton Walker, who the group said is Pfizer’s "director of research and development, strategic operations." (PolitiFact was unable to verify Walker’s connection to Pfizer or his title.)
It is unknown what Project Veritas might have removed from his remarks. At one point in the video, however, Walker said that Pfizer was "exploring" the possibility of mutating the coronavirus to preemptively develop new vaccines.
As the video continued, the Project Veritas employee said that the proposed research Walker described sounded like "gain of function" to him.
With viruses, "gain-of-function" research refers to work that’s reasonably expected to make a pathogen more virulent or transmissible, experts told PolitiFact.
In a second video, Project Veritas confronted Walker about the remarks he made in the footage. Walker said he’d been filmed without his knowledge. Walker said he had been "trying to impress a person on a date — by lying."
Pfizer denied the allegations about gain-of-function research. The pharmaceutical company and its executives have become targets of online misinformation because of Pfizer’s role in developing one of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.
"In the ongoing development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer has not conducted gain of function or directed evolution research," the company wrote Jan. 27.
Pfizer said that as new coronavirus variants have appeared, it has researched where the original SARS-CoV-2 virus was used to express the spike protein that emerged with those variants. Spike proteins are found on the virus’ surface; they latch onto receptors and facilitate the infection of healthy cells.
That research helps scientists determine whether existing vaccines are able to produce antibodies that neutralize the new variant and whether they need to update the vaccine, Pfizer’s statement said.
Robert Garry, a microbiology and immunology professor at Tulane University’s School of Medicine, said he did not know of any evidence that Pfizer had conducted gain-of-function research on the virus that causes COVID-19. He said such research would have created a virus that was more transmissible or pathogenic, and nature has already provided several coronavirus variants that are much more transmissible.
Garry said he thinks the question of whether research is gain-of-function or not hinges on the "reasonably expected to increase transmissibility or pathology" standard. People can differ, but he said he agrees with Pfizer that "swapping" spike proteins "without other manipulation is unlikely to significantly increase transmissibility or pathology," and therefore would not be gain-of-function research.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requires additional safeguards and scrutiny of high-risk federally funded research that involves enhanced potential pandemic pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
In 2017, the department released a framework for making funding decisions related to that type of research. That framework specified that it would not consider "activities associated with developing and producing vaccines" to be enhanced potential pandemic pathogen research, even if such studies involved modifying the transmissibility or virulence of the pathogen.
Because Pfizer did not use federal funding to develop its COVID-19 vaccine, the framework doesn’t necessarily apply in this case. But Garry said it’s worth noting that even if Pfizer had received federal funding and been held to the framework, research to develop a COVID-19 vaccine would have been exempt from a gain-of-function classification.
Additionally, the footage of Walker’s comments showed that experiments were potentially proposed or considered, "but there is no indication that they were ever carried out," said Joel Wertheim, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
Pfizer’s statement was "not a methods section of a paper," or a proposal that could be evaluated to determine what was being done, why and under what conditions, Wertheim said.
Some social media users — including Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe — latched onto specific language in Pfizer’s Jan. 27 statement, claiming that within the "jargon" the company admitted to doing gain-of-function research connected to the COVID-19 vaccines.
(Screenshot from Instagram.)
Garry reviewed Pfizer’s statement and concluded that no part of it suggested that the company had conducted gain-of-function research, however.
What’s more, the portion of Pfizer’s statement that social media users underlined to claim that Pfizer "admitted" to doing gain-of-function vaccine research wasn’t related to vaccines. It pertained to Pfizer’s oral antiviral medication Paxlovid.
Walker did not return PolitiFact’s requests for comment.
Social media is rife with claims that Pfizer was "caught" mutating the pathogen that causes COVID-19 using gain-of-function research.
The claim stems from video footage that purported to show a Pfizer employee saying that the company had considered research that would potentially mutate the virus behind COVID-19 in an effort to preemptively develop vaccines. There’s no evidence such experiments happened, however.
Pfizer denied doing gain-of-function research while developing its COVID-19 vaccine. An expert told PolitiFact that he agreed with Pfizer’s assessment and would not classify the vaccine research Pfizer described doing as gain-of-function.
We rate this claim False.
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Instagram post, Jan. 29, 2023
Instagram post, Jan. 30, 2023
Newsweek, Fact Check: Does Project Veritas video show Pfizer is mutating COVID? Jan. 26, 2023
Peter Imanuelsen’s website, accessed Jan. 31, 2023
Tweet, Jan. 26, 2023
Email, phone interview with Joel Wertheim, an associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, Jan. 31 and Feb. 6, 2023
Email interview with Robert F. Garry, a microbiology and immunology professor at Tulane University’s School of Medicine, Jan. 30 and Feb. 3, 2023
Intelligencer, The inevitable backlash against James O’Keefe’s heavily edited NPR ‘sting’ begins, March 14, 2011
The Washington Post, Is it okay for James O’Keefe’s ‘investigative reporting’ to rely on deception? Oct. 19, 2016
Reuters, Project Veritas loses jury verdict to Democratic consulting firm, Sept. 23, 2022
MedPage Today, Video of Pfizer employee explaining COVID vaccine research debunked, Jan. 31, 2023
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Framework for guiding funding decisions about proposed research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens, published in 2017
Tulane News, Study finds Wuhan market as likely origin of COVID-19 pandemic, July 26, 2022
U.S. Government Accountability Office, Public health preparedness: HHS could improve oversight of research involving enhanced pandemic pathogens, Jan. 18, 2023
American Hearth Association, Coronavirus spike protein activated natural immune response, damaged heart muscle cells, July 25, 2022
PolitiFact, Ask PolitiFact: What's going on with EcoHealth Alliance, the NIH and coronavirus research? Oct. 28, 2021
PolitiFact, Debating the origins of the COVID-19 virus: What we know, what we don’t know, May 17, 2021
Statement from Pfizer media relations, Feb. 6, 2023
The New York Times, Pfizer’s early data shows vaccine is more than 90% effective, Nov. 9, 2020
Poynter, Why is the Pfizer vaccine announcement such a big deal? Here’s what don’t we know, Nov. 10, 2020
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