Experts: Pfizer tests on COVID vaccines, treatment in line with industry standards
CLAIM: Pfizer has acknowledged in a statement it conducted “gain of function” research as part of its development of a vaccine and a separate medical treatment for COVID-19.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Experts said nothing in a recent statement by the company suggests it’s conducting research designed to make COVID-19 more harmful, as some social media users claim. The company said the research was being done to assess the effectiveness of the vaccine and the antiviral medication Paxlovid against new COVID variants.
THE FACTS: A statement released Jan. 27 by Pfizer in response to allegations it was conducting risky “gain of function” research triggered another round of false speculation against one of the top makers of COVID vaccines.
“So Pfizer just admitted to gain of function research on the corona virus and that government agents forced them to keep it secret. Now how y’all feel about that? Awake yet?” wrote a Facebook user.
Gain of function refers to scientific experiments that give an organism a new property or enhances an existing one. In the case of a virus such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, that could involve making it more harmful, or giving it the ability to transmit to other species.
But the company said no such things in its statement, stressing that its vaccine-related experiments are undertaken only after a new variant 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,” the company said. “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.”
For research related to its antiviral medication Paxlovid, Pfizer said that “most” of the work is conducted using computer simulations or mutations of a non-infectious part of the virus.
“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,” the company said in its statement.
Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, said nothing in the statement suggests Pfizer is conducting research designed to “weaponize” COVID-19 or “increase its pathogenicity,” as some social media users claim.
“They might be undertaking virologic research to test the limits of their technologies knowing that through virus evolution some of these changes may occur naturally,” he wrote in an email. “From my view, this is very different from gain of function research.”
Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University, agreed, though he concedes Pfizer’s statement is “written in a technical way” that could have been “made clearer for non-science readers.”
He said the company, based on its statement, is conducting experiments in response to changes made by the virus on its own, not from any changes researchers made to the virus.
“To be gain of function, the researcher needs to deliberately make a change, knowing that change makes the virus more dangerous, and the change must be something the virus could not reasonably do on its own,” Neuman wrote in an email. “Miss out any part of that definition, and it’s not gain of function. That’s a really high bar, and the last part is the key.”
He noted the company, in its statement, says it took an early version of the virus, and replaced the “spike protein” -- the component that allows the virus to easily infect human cells and replicate -- with the spike protein from the new variant.
“That’s a cleaner way of looking at the effect of the spike, because spike changes always come along with a sprinkling of other non-spike changes,” Neuman explained. “They kept all of the virus the same, except for the spike, so any difference in how the vaccines worked would be down to the spike.”
Albert Ko, who chairs the epidemiology department at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, said the online claims amounted to “scare mongering” and echo similar claims about COVID-19 research at Boston University last year.
“Engineering the virus does not always mean gain of function research,” he said. “Vaccines are made this way, from taking pieces of one virus and placing it into another virus. It does not necessarily mean a high risk of creating a stronger, more dangerous virus.”
At the same time, he said, the company should disclose more information about the work, such as its internal approvals process and safety protocols, as well as the rationale for the experiment design.
A spokesperson for Pfizer declined to respond to requests for additional comment.
“The statement stands as our comment on the false allegations currently being made about vaccine research at Pfizer,” Amy Rose wrote in an email.
This story has been corrected to show that Baylor College of Medicine is located in Houston, not Waco.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.