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Mon Apr 19, 2021, 03:53 PM

Nature: Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research

Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research

Lab-made coronavirus related to SARS can infect human cells.


An experiment that created a hybrid version of a bat coronavirus one related to the virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has triggered renewed debate over whether engineering lab variants of viruses with possible pandemic potential is worth the risks.

In an article published in Nature Medicine1 on 9 November, scientists investigated a virus called SHC014, which is found in horseshoe bats in China. The researchers created a chimaeric virus, made up of a surface protein of SHC014 and the backbone of a SARS virus that had been adapted to grow in mice and to mimic human disease. The chimaera infected human airway cells proving that the surface protein of SHC014 has the necessary structure to bind to a key receptor on the cells and to infect them. It also caused disease in mice, but did not kill them.

Although almost all coronaviruses isolated from bats have not been able to bind to the key human receptor, SHC014 is not the first that can do so. In 2013, researchers reported this ability for the first time in a different coronavirus isolated from the same bat population2.

The whole article is worth reading at the link, but this is the paragraph I'd like to discuss:

Studies testing hybrid viruses in human cell culture and animal models are limited in what they can say about the threat posed by a wild virus, Daszak agrees. But he argues that they can help indicate which pathogens should be prioritized for further research attention.

The general topic is gain-of-function (GOF) research, which is controversial, and about which I, personally, remain ambivalent.

But this article highlights and clearly illustrates what one viewpoint postulates: that GOF research is mostly academic (while being highly risky).

The proof is that the paper being referenced (A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence https://www.nature.com/articles/nm.3985) is a study of a group of viruses collected at the same time, and from the same location as the virus RaTG13, which is the bat coronavirus that, to date, is the closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2, causative agent of Covid-19.

To be clear: RaTG13 was (at least partially in 2016; fully by 2018) sequenced at the same time, so was known about and published (in 2016, as sample "4991" in Coexistence of multiple coronaviruses in several bat colonies in an abandoned mineshaft https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12250-016-3713-9 ).

If it sounds like a detective case where the serial killer is apprehended by police, taken in for questioning, and is then released (:cough:Ted Bundy:cough: ), it's because it is the scientific equivalent.

After the current pandemic outbreak, when queried about why RaTG13 did not undergo further analysis and experimentation, the researchers said that RaTG13 (basically, paraphrasing) "wasn't interesting enough." Here's what that paper says about RaTG13 aka RaBtCoV/4991:

Only two sequences detected in this study were homologous to betacoronaviruses. One of them (RaBtCoV/4991) was detected in a R. affinis sample and was related to SL-CoV. The conserved 440-bp RdRp fragment of RaBt-CoV/4991 had 89% nt identity and 95% aa identity with SL-CoV Rs672 (Yuan et al., 2010). In the phylogenetic tree, RaBtCoV/4991 showed more divergence from human SARS-CoV than other bat SL-CoVs and could be considered as a new strain of this virus lineage (Figure 2).

RaTG13 was in the sights, the crosshairs, but then shelved as being "not interesting enough." That they characterized it as a potential "new strain" and also failed to pursue studying it, strikes me as odd.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. But the whole point of GOF research is the be able to predict and prepare for that unforeseen future pandemic. If it fails--and let's be honest, short of them having had the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus in their sampling population, this was damned close!--then we must question the value of such research vis a vis risk vs. reward.

Of course, another view could be that this research failed to predict this pandemic because there wasn't enough being invested in GOF work. I suspect that will be the prevailing conclusion, and that tons more money will be spent expanding that focus, with hundreds more BSL3/4 labs being built worldwide.

Are we prepared for that?

BTW, the article in the title of this OP is from 2015.

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Reply Nature: Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research (Original post)
intrepidity Apr 2021 OP
Duppers Apr 2021 #1
SCantiGOP Apr 2021 #2

Response to intrepidity (Original post)

Mon Apr 19, 2021, 11:52 PM

1. Bookmarking.

Thank you!

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Response to intrepidity (Original post)

Tue Apr 20, 2021, 11:59 PM

2. Whatever emerges from the human-monkey DNA work

Can probably protect us from the mutant bat virus apocalypse.

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