A research team at the University of North Carolina in the United States, led by one of the world's leading virus specialists, Professor Ralph Baric, is racing against time to artificially recreate the Chinese coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2 is its scientific name). Using the DNA of the virus, sequenced by Chinese scientists, the American team is artificially making a clone of the virus that threatens the world with an imminent pandemic. The aim of this highly dangerous manipulation is to carry out all sorts of experiments at leisure in order to treat contaminated patients as quickly as possible.
The name Ralph Baric is particularly well known in the world of virus science. He has been conducting research in virus engineering for several years and has made a name for himself by carrying out work that makes it possible to synthesise virusesi.e. to recreate them from scratch by copying the codes from their DNA. Such a high-risk activity was so dangerous that the U.S. government decided in 2014 to freeze fundings for the laboratory, which was too risky for national security in these times of terrorism. The funding was then restored, which allowed the University of North Carolina teams to establish a good reputation in the ex nihilo manufacture of highly pathogenic coronaviruses.
As soon as the epidemic broke out in China, Professor Barric became interested in the new coronavirus that is making headlines around the world, and more specifically in its genetic sequencing. On this point, Chinese scientists, as soon as the disease appeared, redoubled their efforts to sequence the DNA of the new virus and publish it widely; a feat unanimously hailed by the entire world scientific community. Thus, one can find on Internet the entire virus code.
Professor Baric's team immediately examined the genetic sequences of the virus and looked for similar existing sequences, which differed slightly, but allowed us to approach a "consensus" version. These sequences exist in the catalogues of specialized laboratories. Companies such as Integrated DNA Technology (IDT), Twist Bioscience and Atum are pioneers in this exercise. A few days ago, Professor Baric, therefore, placed an order a few days ago for genetic material to "sew" together the genes and synthetically reproduce the coronavirus.
The biologists working with Ralph Baric should receive their clone virus within a month. They will then be able to inject the genetic instructions into cells. If all goes according to plan, the cells should begin to make real infectious viral particles.
Through the magic of biotechnology, scientists are creating a virus from almost nothing.
Inevitably one thinks of the risks involved in this type of exercise. One wonders why it is really useful to make living machines that carry disease and death; is nature not generous enough in this matter? We also wonder, and conspiracy theorists will make a big fuss about it, whether this experimentation does not demonstrate the ability of some states to acquire biological weapons capable of wiping out entire populations, societies and economies.
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In this little game, social media and some sites or blogs are full of unfounded speculations that the new virus was accidentally released by a Chinese biological weapons laboratory or spread by the Americans who, at Trump's behest, want to destroy the Chinese economy?
The truth is that scientists justify the creation of such synthetic viruses with much simpler explanations, which seem to be well-founded.
Ralph Baric explains that in order to work on coronaviruses and find the right ways to cure the sick and eradicate the pandemic, viruses are needed. Scientists have to work on the virus itself. This seems to make a lot of sense. However, in the case of the current epidemic, the virus is very difficult to obtain. Live virus samples from patients have not been widely distributed from China. And this is almost always the case in countries affected by an epidemic. The communication of live viruses is very complicated. In past epidemics, scientists had to wait months or years before they could examine the germ that caused an outbreak.
This is why researchers are very interested in having access to certified copies of the virus. From these copies, scientists can use their biotechnological arsenal to remove genes, add more genes and discover how the virus spreads and how it accesses human cells. Artificial copies could also help scientists follow the unpredictable path of the epidemic. « It's been a pretty dramatic increase, starting as soon as the genome was published, ' John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis for the cybersecurity company FireEye, states to MIT Technology Review Stanley Perlman, a microbiologist working on coronaviruses at the University of Iowa. « The synthetic virus is only a substitute for the real virus, but with the DNA clone, you can manipulate it, find the weak points and develop a therapy. ".
Coronavirus DNA Rush
Ralph Baric and his team are not the only ones working on virus clones made from DNA sequences. Since the Chinese put the genetic code of the coronavirus online, biotech companies, governments and universities have been scrambling to order physical copies of particular genes found in the virus. DNA manufacturers say they have been swamped with orders for parts of the virus, including those useful for testing diagnostic and other tests needed to make possible vaccines. « This was a fairly dramatic increase, which began as soon as the genome was published. "says Adam Clore, technical director of synthetic biology at IDT, based in Iowa, and one of the world's largest DNA vendors.
Most researchers need only one or two genes from the virus to advance their work on tests or vaccines. What's new and unique about Ralph Baric is that he's the only one who has tried to completely recreate the virus from ordered pieces of DNA. An experiment that, if it fell into the wrong hands, could prove catastrophic. The haunt of all institutions working on viruses is that one of them will escape them and end up in the hands of bioterrorists.
Research into the new coronavirus is so dangerous that DNA manufacturers were quick last week to meet and formulate a policy on who should be able to purchase full versions of the genome of the new virus. In a statement released on February 11 the International Consortium for Gene Synthesis,a commercial and non-governmental group, took a cautious position. It said it would treat the new Chinese virus as if it were SARS, a virus added to the list of screening agents in 2012 and whose possession is closely monitored by the U.S. government. This means that anyone wishing to obtain a complete synthetic copy of the SARS CoV-2 will have to undergo "specific and detailed screening" and prove that they are already registered by the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to work on SARS, as are researchers in North Carolina.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the companies that manufacture DNA are all privately held, predominantly American companies. They are free to respond to their customers' demands. Claes Gustaffson, founder and chief commercial officer of Atum, a DNA supplier in California, says he has received orders from eight companies for parts of the virus' genome and has personally approved a request from a U.S. government agency to manufacture 90 percent of its genes - likely to create an attenuated (i.e., harmless) version of the virus. " They probably want to find a way to make a vaccine as quickly as possible... ", says Gustaffson. « But if someone wanted to do it all, I wouldn't. There are some things, like polio, that you don't want to do, no matter who asks you to. ".
At the moment, only a few sophisticated centres are capable of booting or recreating a virus; there is no chance that a madman working in a garage can do it. « We are at the point where the best of the best can start synthesizing this new virus at the same time as the epidemic. But these are just a few labs, " says Nicholas G. Evans, who studies biological threats at the University of Massachusetts. " Fortunately, we're a long way from the point where a lot of people can synthesize anything ".
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Source: MIT Technology Review