Virus Research Has Exploded Since Covid-19 Hit. Is It Safe?
From (David P.)@21:1/5 to All on Thu Oct 7 01:10:55 2021
Virus Research Has Exploded Since Covid-19 Hit. Is It Safe?
By McKay & Marcus, 9/24/21, Wall St. Journal
To find out whether a newly discovered animal virus can
infect humans, scientists often combine its genetic
material with the genetic material from another virus
already used in the lab for experiments, creating what is
called a “chimeric” virus. That is because they often find
only fragments of the new virus. Even if they get all its
genetic material, growing the new virus in a lab can be
They then sometimes test whether the chimeric virus can
infect human cells in the lab. If it does, more lab work
needs to be done to determine whether it could actually
infect a person and, if so, whether it could transmit from
one person to another, said Dr. Sheahan at UNC.
Because these are new pathogens whose properties can’t
fully be anticipated, experiments involving such procedures
should be more closely vetted, said Richard Ebright, a
molecular biologist at Rutgers U, a longtime critic of
the value of such risky research.
Scientists & govt officials have debated the risks of
gain-of-function research since at least 2011, when
virologists genetically modified the deadly H5N1
avian-flu virus so it could spread among ferrets.
The researchers, working independently at U. of Wisconsin
& Erasmus U. Med Ctr in the Netherlands, ignited a storm
when they sought to publish their work in science journals.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which
makes recommendations to the govt on potentially risky
research, asked journals to hold off while panel members
debated the risks of publishing the scientists’ methods,
including the risk of providing bad actors with the means
to create a bioweapon.
Dr. Collins & Anthony Fauci, director of the Nat'l Inst.
of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, said the risks could be
mitigated, & the info might accelerate efforts to develop
vaccines or stop outbreaks.
The findings ultimately were published. The studies’
authors & other virologists agreed to a one-year moratorium
on such experiments while the scientific community &
regulators debated whether new rules were needed.
Then in 2014, the U.S. govt declared a pause to gain-of-
function research on certain dangerous viruses & set out
to develop a new set of rules following incidents including
an unintentional exposure of lab workers to anthrax bacteria
& a discovery of some decades-old overlooked vials of
Some research was allowed to continue: work seeking to
identify coronaviruses that might jump to humans. Ralph
Baric at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at
UNC Chapel Hill & colleagues published a study of a bat
virus closely related to SARS, a disease that emerged in
2002 & killed nearly 800 people.
They inserted a portion of the bat virus into a SARS virus
adapted for lab tests in mice—creating a novel pathogen—&
sought to see whether it would infect human cells. It did,
& in mice it caused disease, though less deadly than SARS.
Then, he and his colleagues published research showing
that another virus closely related to SARS infected both
mice & human airway cells in the lab. They warned it was
“poised for human emergence.”
Dr. Baric has said he thinks SARS-CoV-2 most likely
evolved naturally to infect humans, yet he joined the
scientists who in May called for serious investigation
of the lab-accident hypothesis as well.
Researchers in Wuhan used techniques similar to his to
test whether 8 SARS-like bat coronas had the potential to
infect human cells, acc. to a paper they published in 2017.
It was part of an effort to find out how SARS-like bat
viruses might make changes that would render them a
danger to humans.
Biosafety levels in lab research range from 1—used in
high-school or college labs for work that doesn’t pose a
disease risk to humans—to 4, reserved for the most
At least some of the bat-coronaviruses work at Wuhan was
done in a level-2 lab, which some U.S. scientists say is
too low a safety level for that kind of work. Virologist
Shi Zhengli, who led the work, has said her lab followed
protocols set at the time by the Chinese government.
Dr. Shi didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Drs. Collins and Fauci said the work combining pieces of
coronaviruses was allowed to go ahead with NIH funding
because the NIH didn’t deem it likely to make the viruses
highly transmissible and virulent in humans.
In the U.S., the policy for reviewing the riskiest proposed
research on pathogens before it begins took effect in 2017
after years of debate. The HHS review group has approved
two projects, both avian-flu studies, which were allowed
to proceed in 2018 with mods to reduce risk & increase
benefits, acc. to a govt statement. The review group
approved aspects of a 3rd project, but NIH didn’t fund it.
Details of the review group’s discussions aren’t publicly
released. Arturo Casadevall, a prof at Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health, has said in a paper
that the discussions ought to be held publicly, with the
decision-making process open to all. An HHS spokesperson
said federal regs prohibit public disclosure of research
proposals prior to a funding decision.
Dr. Casadevall’s own lab is discussing doing a study to
figure out how fungi adapt to higher temps. Work like
that wouldn’t typically raise red flags, he said, yet
there can be unexpected outcomes. “Any time you change
the properties of an organism, you need to seek biosafety
review & approval,” he said.
Dr. Collins at the NIH said that in light of the pandemic,
the federal govt might ask the NSABB, the federal advisory
panel to the NIH on biosecurity, to consider reviewing
whether current policy to evaluate research proposals
for govt funding is adequate.
Dr. Fauci said he is open to changes in U.S. policy but
added that research on bat viruses is essential to
preventing future pandemics. “You’ve got to be foolish to
think that the threats are still not out there,” he said.