Covid-19 revives the debate around the manipulation of viruses

Could Boston become the next Wuhan, with the tourist arcades of Quincy Market playing the role of the detonator that the Huanan market was in the Covid-19 pandemic? The half-serious, half-provocative question was asked on Twitter on October 18 by Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at MIT’s renowned Broad Institute, following an experiment previously published on the BioRxiv server.

Boston University researchers report the fabrication of a chimeric SARS-CoV-2, combining Omicron’s hyper-contagious but low-virulent variant with a much deadlier (but less contagious) variant, dating to the start of the pandemic. Results ? A pathogen worse than each of its two parents: deadly, because it is capable of infecting the deep lung, and contagious, because it is able to escape the immune system more efficiently.

This experiment has helped, along with a number of other recent publications, to inflame the virology community, which is now increasingly divided over the question of biohazards: what is a dangerous experiment? Who should decide this and according to what process? Never have these questions seemed so pressing, nor have virology been so divided. It must be said that the worst pandemic of the XXIme century, that of Covid-19, has been there and has profoundly renewed this controversy, giving it an unprecedented scope, sharpness and urgency. Its consequences could change the practices of virology internationally, and even beyond all life sciences.

Dangerous game of “gain of function”

Certainly, apparently, the debate is not really new. – especially since the history of virology is dotted with laboratory accidents and leaks, even among the safest ones –, but now it has changed scale. Virus recombination, mutation, and “rewriting” experiments (not to mention infections of human cell cultures or “humanized” mice) have become extremely common in just a few years; and among them, there are many that increase the danger of pathogens. Specialists modestly describe these experiments as “gain of function” to indicate that the modified pathogen acquires or develops a problematic property: contagiousness, virulence, immunological or pharmacological evasion. When these aggravated viruses have pandemic potential, they are often referred to by the less euphemistic term “Frankenvirus.”

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