Not long ago few of us had heard of the coronavirus, and yet this curious entity has rapidly altered life as we know it. The spiky bugs have been around for millions of years infecting almost everyone but seldom killing us – at least not until 2003 when SARS-CoV appeared in Hong Kong with a death rate of around 10%. No coronavirus had ever done that before. The outbreak was blamed on animals. 

Thousands of civets were killed as suspects, and then wild pigs, bats, and snakes also tested positive for SARS-like viruses. 

A similar coronavirus appeared in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. It was named MERS and blamed on camels. Then in December 2019 Chinese authorities notified the World Health Organisation that a novel coronavirus was circulating, subsequently named SARS-CoV-2. Once more animals were blamed, this time bats and pangolins. It was said to have emerged from the live animal market in Wuhan but there was growing scepticism, as Wuhan is also home to a high security biolaboratory involved in long-term research into bat coronaviruses. 

Concerns that the pandemic may have resulted from a laboratory accident were refuted in March by Scripps Research Institute claiming that “If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness.” The statement was backed by a representative of the UK Wellcome Trust who said the investigation showed that the virus was “the product of natural evolution” which they claimed ended “any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering.”

However, the speculation continued. In May a paper published by the Harvard-affiliated Broad Institute stated that genetic data showed that the virus did not originate in the wet market and was already pre-adapted to human transmission when it first emerged. Eminent vaccine scientist Nikolai Petrovsky of Flinders University Adelaide said Covid-19 was “uniquely adapted to infect humans …” and that he had never seen a ‘zoonotic’ virus behave in this way. This was either “a remarkable coincidence or a sign of human intervention … the cultured virus could have escaped the facility either through accidental infection of a staff member … or by inappropriate disposal of waste.” He added that the “close proximity” of the initial outbreak “to a high-risk biosecurity facility” demanded a “full and independent international enquiry”.

ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN

There is a long history of such incidents. In 2004 the SARS coronavirus escaped the Beijing Chinese Institute of Virology –  twice, resulting in hundreds of people quarantined. In 2007 a UK outbreak of foot and mouth disease was traced back to two high security labs at Pirbright. The virus had escaped from broken drainage pipes causing devastation to farming in the region. The incident demonstrated that maintenance had been seriously lacking and the viral material had not been de-activated before disposal. In 2013 the Guardian reported that there had been more than 100 serious incidents at UK biolabs in the previous five years, some resulting in legal action and labs being shut down.

RISKS AND REGULATIONS

The early 1970s saw the beginning of GM technology. Scientists had found a way to ‘cut and paste’ genes between unrelated species that do not naturally interbreed. Early experiments involved the creation and reproduction of hybrid viruses. These experiments caused a great deal of both excitement and concern within the scientific community. In 1972 there was an attempt at regulating the weaponising of dangerous pathogens. The UK joined the US, the Soviet Union and more than 100 other countries in signing the Biological and Toxin weapons Convention. Possession of deadly biological and chemical agents was banned – except for research into defense strategies. 

This turned into a gaping loophole, which completely undermined the international effort. Creation of lethal pathogens simply continued under the new label of ‘defense’ work. Facilities conducting such work have been proliferating at an alarming rate with an estimated 3,200 worldwide; about half of these are in the US. Many of the laboratories belong to private or academic institutions, which may not be subject to direct government oversight. 

In 2011 scientists at both the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and the University of Wisconsin announced the creation of a mutant H5N1 bird flu virus. The original virus that emerged in 1997 had been predicted to kill millions but actually resulted in fewer than 500 deaths worldwide. Bird flu rarely infects humans but the terrifying predictions resulted
in global panic and mass stock-piling of medications. The novel laboratory version however was engineered to be far more contagious.

There was an uproar following announcement of the Bird flu experiments and concern that such viruses might be accidentally released or used as bioweapons. In 2013 more than 800 international scientists including the UK’s David Bellamy signed the ‘Open Letter … to All Governments Concerning GMOs’. Their concerns included the potential creation of novel viruses both intentional and accidental.

GAIN OF FUNCTION

Experiments where pathogens including viruses are deliberately engineered to be more lethal, more contagious, or to specifically target human cells, are referred to as ‘Gain of Function’ (GOF). These experiments are conducted under the banner of defense work including pandemic preparedness.

In 2014 over 200 scientists signed the Cambridge Working Group declaration arguing for an end to experiments designed to create pathogens with enhanced pandemic potential. Harvard School of Public Health found that there were incidents on almost a weekly basis at US high-containment laboratories. Incidents have included lost vials containing deadly pathogens, escape of infected lab mice, infected animals sold as meat for human consumption. Following a series of high profile incidents including the exposure of dozens of Centre for Disease Control workers to anthrax, the Obama Administration withdrew funding for GOF experiments. A temporary ban was announced in 2014. Peter Hale, director of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, said: “The government has finally seen the light … I shall sleep better tonight.” 

But the experiments didn’t stop – they continued elsewhere. The NIH awarded a grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a group involved in bat corona virus research in China, working with the Wuhan lab. The magazine Newsweek reported that the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci had been funding scientists at Wuhan and other institutions “for work on gain of function research on bat coronaviruses.” 

In 2015 researchers at the University of North Carolina announced the creation of a hybrid coronavirus similar to SARS. This work had been allowed to continue despite the ban. The researchers took the spike protein from a coronavirus found in Chinese horseshoe bats and inserted it into a SARS virus. The novel virus was able to infect both mice and human respiratory cells. Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, warned that the engineered virus “grows remarkably well” in human cells. “If it ever escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory.” 

Enhancing potential pandemic pathogens … is simply not worth the risk

The research showed that the original bat virus, left to its own devices, was harmless to humans and mice. It would have to do a lot of evolving to ever become a problem. Molecular biologist and biodefense expert Richard Ebright commented that all the research had achieved was “the creation … of a new, non-natural risk”. The US ban on these experiments was lifted in 2017. Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, a founding member of the Cambridge Working group of scientists questioning the research, said there was no “compelling evidence” that these experiments were necessary. Dangerous GOF procedures had produced “nothing for the purposes of surveillance that we did not already know … enhancing potential pandemic pathogens in this manner is simply not worth the risk.” 


Abbreviations
Coronavirus: a common virus that infects humans
COVID or CoV-19 The novel Coronavirus that emerged in 2019
SARS Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
MERS Middle East Respiratory Syndrome
H5N1 Avian [Bird] Flu – an influenza virus
ZOONOTIC Disease caused by a pathogen that passes from animals to humans
CDC US Centre for Disease Control
GM Genetic Modification
GMO Genetically Modified Organism
GOF Gain of Function
NIH US National Institute of Health


Sources and Further Reading for Article ‘Invisible Enemies‘

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331496732_The_global_proliferation_of_high-containment_biological_laboratories_understanding_the_phenomenon_and_its_implications

https://sas.rutgers.edu/news-a-events/news/newsroom/faculty/2004-scientist-at-rutgers-emerges-as-leading-critic-of-labs-that-handle-pathogens

https://www.newsweek.com/dr-fauci-backed-controversial-wuhan-lab-millions-us-dollars-risky-coronavirus-research-1500741

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303784264_Open_Letter_from_World_Scientists_to_All_Governments_Concerning_Genetically_Modified_Organisms_GMOs

https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-origins-expl/explainer-what-we-know-about-the-origins-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic-idUKKBN23H1HQ

https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.01.073262v1

https://www.scripps.edu/news-and-events/press-room/2020/20200317-andersen-covid-19-coronavirus.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2019/03/04/scientists-restart-research-on-creating-deadly-bird-flu-with-nihs-blessing/#37cf573e5edd

https://mbio.asm.org/content/5/4/e01730-14

http://www.cambridgeworkinggroup.org/


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