While the whole world is scared of the new strain of corona virus that causes the Covid-19 epidemic, scientists at the University of North Carolina want it.
The virus strain, called SARS-CoV-2, causes flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But when it infects people with weak immune systems, it can kill them and leave a devastated lungs. to decay like beehives.
SARS-CoV-2 is currently only cultured and isolated at a number of research facilities in China, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. But its genome has been fully decoded and shared by Chinese researchers on the internet since January.
This led Ralph Baric, a corona virus researcher, to think that he could synthesize an artificial version of SARS-CoV-2, right in his lab.
The only thing to do is to order individual DNA fragments, provided by biomaterial manufacturers such as Atum and Twist Bioscience. Baric then grafted these gene segments together to match the RNA of the new corona virus.
With about 30,000 gene characters, the job can take a month, costing several thousand dollars. But by completing a single virus prototype, Baric will be able to implant it into lung cells to produce thousands, even millions of copies of SARS-CoV-2.
US scientist wants to synthesize artificial Covid-19 virus in the laboratory
You can imagine creating a deadly virus now seems as easy as a Lego game. Theoretically, a scientist only needs to have the genetic code to “teleport“a strain of virus from China to the United States without entering it.
Order and delivery of pieces “Lego gene“It can even be done online. This makes many people worried that a terrorist could now make his own virus strains at home and carry out biological attacks.
But is everything as easy as you imagine? Let’s find out what Baric and his colleagues are doing at the lab. Are they afraid of the artificial viruses they synthesize?
The artificial virus will be identical to the real virus, and more
Over the last few years, the groundbreaking advances made by Baric’s lab at the University of North Carolina have caused headaches for Washington managers. He and his colleagues mastered the most advanced genetic and biological techniques, allowing the synthesis of virus strains that infect mice.
Although it is an unbelievable step forward in science, creating viruses is perceived by regulators as risky. In 2014, the National Institutes of Health once stopped funding Baric, before he demonstrated the potential benefits, placed next to the safety of what he was doing.
And at the time that the Covid-19 epidemic was spreading rapidly around the world, the potential of artificial viruses was realized. Scientists need viruses to study its toxicity, learn how it causes illness, test specific medicines and vaccines to slow or combat the spread. But not everyone has access to real samples.
Currently, only four countries have successfully cultured and isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus strain causing Covid-19, namely China, Australia, Japan and Vietnam. To study these real viruses, scientists from other countries and even other laboratories will have to wait for the virus to be sent to them.
But one is that this cannot be done easily and there are certain risks. Second, they do not want to wait. The approach now is: Why not make a copy of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by yourself?
Is this possible? In fact, as early as December 2019, after an outbreak in China, Chinese scientists successfully deciphered the entire genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and shared it publicly with international scientific community.
Baric has downloaded and reviewed the genetic sequence. He then compared it to some of the gene sequences he already had. The only remaining job is to use a gene editing technique in the laboratory – something that Baric and his colleagues have mastered – to put together DNA fragments.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus contains within it an RNA of approximately 30,000 genetic characters, which can take about a month. At the same time, Baric will prepare a number of cells in advance to make a parasite home for the virus. Once its genome has been sequenced, he injects the RNA sample into these cells.
Like what happens in the patient’s body, the cells now on the lab disk will act like an automated line, which will multiply RNA samples thousands of times, creating thousands of copies that are artificial SARS-CoV-2 virus particles.
Timothy Sheahan, a researcher at the University of North Carolina who is working with the team with Baric, said the real and synthetic viruses would be essentially the same. But by holding the formula to create it, they will be more active in the research process.
For example, Sheahan can create a series of identical replicating viruses at the same time, something that isolates and cultures viruses hard to do by the fact that they will always evolve and mutate. .
Having multiple duplicate virus samples would allow them to better match the experiments. They can also add, subtract and modify certain genetic characters to make exclusion, in order to find out which genes eventually allow SARS-CoV-2 to gain toxicity and transmission. spread frantically on its people.
Experiments on tweaking artificial viruses can also accelerate the evolution of the virus, helping scientists predict the scenarios that can occur when pathogens change in real life.
“I am worried that at some point in this pandemic the virus will change and this will allow me to study the effects of those mutations.“, Says Stanley Perlman, a microbiologist from the University of Iowa.
Real images of SARS-CoV-2 under electron microscopes.
In another research direction, Sheahan wanted to try to infect mice with artificial viruses and give them different drugs in turn to see which ones were effective.
“The artificial virus is an alternative to the real virus, but with its DNA copy, you can manipulate it, find its weaknesses and develop a therapy against it.“, Perlman adds.
How to ensure safety, and prevent viruses from falling into the wrong hands?
In the early 2000s, scientists demonstrated for the first time that they could combine DNA sequences together to create a real virus from its decoded genetic sequence.
A team at New York University did this to the polio virus. They do not even need to assemble each DNA character by themselves. A number of biotechnology companies have already seen this future, and they provide science with pre-assembled character sets, such as bio Lego pieces.
This technology immediately creates worries about terrorist risks. What if the bad guys used this technique to revive smallpox? Despite this fact, genetic engineering still creates biosecurity threats, when dangerous pathogens that have gone extinct can now be revived.
That was even done 15 years ago. Researchers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revived the Spanish influenza virus that killed more than 50 million people in 1919.
It was 2005 and now, genetic engineering has improved a lot.
A scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is examining a revived Spanish flu virus.
To keep technology out of the wrong hands, biotechnology companies have come together to limit access to dangerous genes. DNA manufacturers in the US constantly have to collate their orders with a database of about 60 deadly pathogens called “selective agents“.
Only authorized laboratories are allowed to purchase these DNA, which is the code needed to revive deadly pathogens.
Battelle, an R&D company working in the field of science, has developed a software called ThreatSEQ. This software has the ability to compare gene sequences to filter out the “tselective evil“And they built a scenario in which a bad guy tried to find a way to order a copy of SARS-CoV-2.
According to Craig Bartling, a senior researcher at Battelle, their software has identified the virus as well as its dangerous gene codes in “highest threat level“These alerts were immediately identified, because the new virus very similar to the SARS strain caused the global pandemic in 2003, killing about 8,000 people before it became extinct.”
Last week, DNA manufacturers quickly set up a policy to control the ordering of genetic material to synthesize the virus that is causing the Covid-19 epidemic.
In a statement, the International Association for Genetic Synthesis stated that they will apply previous regulations to the SARS virus to the new strain of corona. That means the US government will closely monitor the possession of this virus.
Ralph Baric believes he can synthesize an artificial version of SARS-CoV-2, right in his lab.
Under current regulations, anyone who wants a complete consolidated copy of SARS-CoV-2 will undergo rigorous testing. They must prove they have been approved by the CDC to work with the SARS virus, like Baric’s team at the University of North Carolina.
However, DNA manufacturing companies are still the ones who decide in the end what they will sell, and who they will sell to. Claes Gustaffson, founder and commercial director of Atum, a DNA supplier in California, said he received SARS-CoV-2 DNA sample orders from eight companies.
A US government agency also placed an order with them to generate 90% of the virus’s DNA code. Gustaffson approved their request. He thought that the US government wanted to create a weakened (harmless) version of SARS-CoV-2.
“Perhaps they want to find a way to make the vaccine as quickly as possible“, he said. But if they want to order 100%, or the entire virus,”I will not approve. There are some things, like polio, you don’t want to create it, no matter who the ordering agency is. “.
There are fears from conspiracy theories
In fact, the number of research institutions currently capable of synthesizing artificial viruses is only counted on the fingers. There is no simple or homemade technology that can allow a person to synthesize viruses at home.
We are at a time when only the best of the best scientists can synthesize artificial SARS-CoV-2. However, the ability to synthesize viruses and produce pathogens will undoubtedly cultivate conspiracy theories.
Some conspiracy theories claim that SARS-CoV-2 has spread from a Chinese biological weapons research laboratory, located right in Wuhan.
Recently, social networks and some blogs have continuously spread fake news that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread from a Chinese bio-weapons research laboratory located right in Wuyi. Han.
But so far, there is no evidence that this is true.
For his part, Baric said that he did not think that synthetic viruses could cause an epidemic similar to that in the wild. On the contrary, it will be an opportunity for us to learn about them, counteract them and prevent disease. “Whether you get a virus sample from a cell or synthesize it, everything should end [có hậu] so“, Baric said.
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