WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As our mastery of synthetic biology improves so too does our ability to create new types of artificial bio-weaponry, and it’s freaking governments out.
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A decade or so ago the mere thought of anyone having the genetic engineering tools or skill to create artificial cells, engineer new six base and even eight base DNA organisms, as well as a deadly pathogen would have been broadly scoffed at, and then came CRISPR – a gene editing technology so powerful that it’s revolutionising global healthcare – appeared. Then, as the US Government and other organisations began freaking out about the possibility of the technology getting into the hands of bio-terrorists who could use it to create a deadly pathogen a top university went off and used it to bring Horsepox, a deadly contagious virus that went extinct last century, back from the dead – literally.
In order to accomplish the de-extinction feat all the researchers had to do was get a copy of the genetic sequence for the Horsepox virus, which had been diligently sequenced and filed decades earlier, and simply re-create it. And as the technology gets more powerful, and easier and cheaper to acquire and use, they’re not the only ones who, armed with a mere $100 and an internet connection, could pull it off.
Fast forward to today to a time when the world is being ravaged by COVID-19 and it’s no wonder that conspiracy theories claiming the virus was engineered in a lab as part of a biological attack on the US have been gaining traction. But now a new study on the origins of the virus has thankfully concluded that the pandemic-causing strain developed naturally.
An analysis of the evidence, according to the findings first published in the scientific journal Nature Medicine, shows that the novel coronavirus “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” with the researchers concluding “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
“There’s a lot of speculation and conspiracy theories that went to a pretty high level,” Dr. Robert Garry, a professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine and one of the authors of the study, told CNN, “so we felt it was important to get a team together to examine evidence of this new coronavirus to determine what we could about the origin.”
Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, supported the study’s findings, writing on his blog, “This study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19.”
Researchers concluded that the novel coronavirus is not a human creation because it does not share any “previously used virus backbone.” It likely arose, the study said, from a recombination of a virus found in bats and another virus, possibly originating from pangolins, otherwise known as scaly anteaters.
COVID-19 is 96% identical to a coronavirus found in bats, researchers said, but with a certain variation that could explain what has made it so infectious.
“We know from the study of other coronaviruses that they’re able to acquire this [variation] and they can then become more pathogenic,” said Garry. “This is a good explanation as to why this virus is so transmittable and has caused this pandemic.”
The mutation in surface proteins, according to Garry, could have triggered the outbreak of the pandemic, but it’s also possible that a less severe version of the illness was circulating through the population for years, perhaps even decades, before escalating to this point.
“We don’t know if those mutations were picked up more recently or a long time ago,” said Garry. “It’s impossible to say if it actually was a mutation that triggered the pandemic, but either way, it would have been a naturally occurring process.”
And while many believe the virus originated at a fish market in Wuhan, China, Garry said that is also a misconception.
“Our analyses, and others too, point to an earlier origin than that,” Garry said. “There were definitely cases there, but that wasn’t the origin of the virus.”