I've written, for example, about a proposed Idaho bill that would make it a misdemeanor to "provide or administer a vaccine developed using messenger ribonucleic acid technology for use in an individual or any other mammal in this state." As bizarre as it seems, administering a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration or Department of Agriculture to prevent a possibly lethal disease would be a crime.
Then there was Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), who introduced legislation to prohibit federal mask mandates from being imposed in the United States. The Freedom to Breathe Act, which would apply through the end of 2024, "would prohibit any federal official, including the President, from issuing mask mandates applying to domestic air travel, public transit systems, or primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools," according to the senator's office.
The rationale? According to Vance, "We tried mask mandates once in this country. They failed to control the spread of respiratory viruses, violated basic bodily freedom, and set our fellow citizens against one another." That's like saying that because airbags fail to prevent all deaths from car crashes, mandating them should be prohibited. The logic is preposterous. And as for sowing divisiveness, such absurd pseudo-libertarian legislative proposals go a long way toward that.
The most recent ill-conceived proposal came from the House of Representatives, which on Nov. 14 approved an insidious amendment to the 2024 spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency of the National Institutes of Health. It would ban federal funding for "gain-of-function" research that modifies high-risk pathogens in ways that can make them more harmful. However, the authors of the bill, Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), may have misunderstood the broad interpretation of "gain of function," which simply means an organism acquiring a new or enhanced property, and the importance of such research.
Gain-of-function experimentation that is intended to increase the transmissibility or virulence of pathogens usually aims to improve understanding of disease-causing agents, their interaction with human hosts, and their ability to spread and cause pandemics. The objective is to inform public health preparedness efforts and development of medical countermeasures, so it is beneficial.
But the vaguely worded provision in the House bill could unintentionally prevent important research — for example, on improved vaccines to prevent flu, COVID-19, RSV, or other infections that could lead to pandemics. It could even be interpreted to prevent the funding of work on genetically engineered bacteria similar to the E. coli that are the source of human insulin, or on the genetically engineered yeast that produces the hepatitis B vaccine.
What is especially disappointing about the amendment to the HHS spending bill is that the two sponsors should know better. Massie has two engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Miller-Meeks is an ophthalmologist.
It is unclear whether the provision will survive, given the partisan divide between the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has not voted on its own version of the HHS spending bill.
However it happens, we can only hope that cooler heads will consider the scientific imperatives and dump the gain-of-function restrictions.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger distinguished fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was the co-discoverer of a critical enzyme in the influenza virus.