Friday, February 28, 2020

Frankenstein’s Virus

Four weeks ago, in Article 123, I mentioned briefly the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV or SARS-CoV-2). Since then, it has spread to more than 50 countries. It might be tempting to compare this outbreak with the SARS (Severe Acute Respiritory Syndrome) viral epidemic of 2003 which affected 26 countries before being brought under control, although predictions of millions of deaths were proved to be wildly overblown.

Caveat: I am not a virologist. I do, though, possess a decent working knowledge of what is called recombinant DNA/RNA technology, whereby genetic material from different sources is joined together to create DNA/RNA sequences which would not occur naturally. I spent a year working with bacterial enzymes that are used to cut viral genomes, so I am familiar with the scope for bio-engineering of viral genes.

On Feburary 2nd, a research team from Delhi, India, led by Dr Prashant Pradhan, published some alarming findings. Investigating the molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2, it was discovered that its genetic sequence contained four insertions, related to HIV, that are absent in other coronaviruses. This, of course, demands explanation. It was concluded, quite logically, that this unique genomic structure was unlikely to have been a result of natural evolution. It was noted, also, that the genetic insertions related to the viruss so-called spike proteins, which protrude from its surface and facilitate entry into host cells (Figure 125.1). This ability determines the degree of contagiousness.

Figure 125.1: A coronavirus. Pradhan et al. (2020) can be viewed at However, since publication, the article has been removed from many online sources. The pre-print server BioRχiv has included a carefully-worded disclaimer regarding its controversial conclusions.

Copyright © 2020 Pan American Health Organization

If SARS-CoV-2 was bio-engineered to increase its ability to attach to, and enter, host cells, then what beneficial purpose could such modification serve? The answer might lie in HIV research. Coronaviruses have for years been researched with regard to their potential use as a vector (delivery agent) for an HIV vaccine, although I do harbour doubts. Effective vaccination depends on easy uptake into cells, although all previous attempts at synthesizing an effective coronavirus vaccine have failed.

Unfortunately, this particular sword is double-edged. The resultant disease, now named COVID-19, is claimed to be significantly more deadly than influenza, and has up greater affinity for the host cell receptor than does SARS. Asymptomatic individuals are said to be contagious for at least a week before symptoms appear, which would, if true, allow plenty of time for infection to spread unknowingly. However, asymptomatic transmission of a respiratory virus remains unproven and, in any case, makes no logical sense. (It baffles me why airports demand that travellers’ temperatures are scanned, as a normal temperature does not necessarily indicate absence of infection.) Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) will confirm whether or not COVID-19 is as lethal as some suspect.

If, as seems the case, the virus is the product of bio-engineering, then it is reasonable to wonder whether the outbreak was born of negligence or mischief. There is no evidence to suspect malicious release, so the possibility of an accidental leak is strong. It seems more than mere coincidence that the viral ground zero, Wuhan, just happens to be the site of China’s only BioSafety Level-4 laboratory, and where scientists are known to have been researching the effects of coronaviruses on humans. (Note: Bio laboratories are graded 1 to 4, depending on the containment precautions needed to isolate the biological agents present. Level 4 requires the most stringent protocols. I have never worked above Level 2 and never wanted to.)

Another point of note is that the frequency of occupational accidents in China is twenty times greater than in Europe. In recent years, there have been four separate leaks of the SARS virus alone. Research ethics and standard operating procedures are notoriously circumvented, which could explain the recurrent lapses. There might also be consequences of Chinas cultural intolerance of insubordination and rebellion. A science facility is kept safe only when all its personnel are free to dissent and dispute – and that is putting it politely. Throughout my years associated with research and forensics, I have witnessed some real humdinger arguments, and have myself reached boiling point, let us say, more than once. Regardless, scientific objectivity and good practice generally prevail when speech is free to all.

I would not like to predict the trajectory of SARS-CoV-2, but current media reports are discouraging – if, of course, they are true.

Copyright © 2020 Paul Spradbery