There has been much speculation as to whether the SARS-Cov2 virus was developed, specifically by the Chinese, as a biological weapon. Many believe that the story that a coronavirus made it’s way into the human population via zoonosis from bats is quite unlikely. Therefore, it must be a ‘designer’ pathogen. Despite the fact that zoonosis has happened many times before.
But is it actually possible that the virus was man-made given today’s technology?
This article will look at the history of today’s gene manipulation technology from the beginning of the Human Genome Project to the cheap and easy availability of genome sequencing today. It will touch on the new technologies of Synthetic Biology and Synthetic Virology, Gene Therapy and what has been called the ‘game changer’ on manipulating the genome. CRISPR/Cas9.
Claims that SARS-Cov2 is a Bio-weapon.
“It raises the issue: if China ever were to admit responsibility, does it pay reparations? I think it will make every country in the world rethink how it treats its relationship with China.’ He added: ‘Look at the stories… of attempts by the [Beijing] leadership to lock down any debate about the origins of the pandemic and the way people have been arrested or silenced.”
“So, I think clearly that the Wuhan coronavirus came out of that BSL-4 facility, this is clearly a weaponised biological warfare agent and there is no legitimate scientific or medical use for gain of function technology.”
What Boyle is referring to, albeit somewhat disingenuously, is that synthetic biology was used to engineer a novel ‘killer’ virus. Gain of function is a technical term that is described by Medicine Net as:
“Gain-of-function mutation: A mutation that confers new or enhanced activity on a protein. Loss-of-function mutations, which are more common, result in reduced or abolished protein function.”
Not quite the definition of nefarious purpose used to create a designer virus. Perhaps it is our misunderstanding of technical terms used in biology or the misappreciation of the nature of evolution which makes the term sound so villainous.
There was also the professionally produced but factually misleading video by Epoch Times which amounted to nothing more than China bashing. That isn’t surprising given their raison d’etre but it is a motif which runs through most of the bio-weapon claims. Claims which are rather fatuous given that China did not force Western Governments to ruin their economies by quarantining the healthy or indeed, that SARS-Cov2 is not particularly dangerous to the mass of humanity.
Wuhan does indeed have a Level 4 bio-lab and they do indeed study bat corona viruses.
“In 2015, the WIV’s National Bio-safety Laboratory was completed at a cost of 300 million yuan ($44 million) in collaboration with the French government’s CIRI lab, and was the first biosafety level 4 (BSL–4) laboratory to be built in mainland China. The establishment of the laboratory was partially funded by the U.S. government and took over a decade to complete from its conception in 2003.” Wikipedia
China has invested heavily in synthetic biology. Most notably the Shenzen Institue of Synthetic Biology close to Hong Kong. In august 2019, Li Ka Shing a noted plastics and real estate agent invested $63 million to start up a similar project at the Hong Kong University of Science and technology.
Synthetic biology is really just at the start of a technological revolution. The market is expected to grow by $11.52 billion by 2024 reaching a total market of $19.8 billion. North America and Asia will dominate this market. In short, more money is being invested in synthetic biology in the West as the East.
The technology is developing but is nascent and fragmented at the moment. This list of potential markets shows where it might lead to.
- Medical Application
- Drug Discovery and Therapeutics
- Cancer Detection & Diagnostics
- Other Drug Discovery and Therapeutic Applications
- Artificial Tissue and Tissue Regeneration
- Stem Cell Regulation
- Other Tissue and Tissue Regeneration Applications
- Industrial Applications
- Biofuel and Renewable Energy
- Biomaterials and Green Chemicals
- Industrial Enzymes, by Application
- Textile Industry
- Paper Industry
- Other Industries
- Food & Agriculture
- Environmental Applications
In truth, no one really knows where this technology will lead or what effect it will have on society. But it it is a game changer. Nothing will be the same. To understand it better we should first look at where this technology came from.
The Human Genome
The human genome project was started in 1990 and completed in April 2003. This remarkable project, one of the milestones of scientific research gave the complete blueprint for how to build a human being.
A genome is the complete set of DNA instructions needed to design, build and operate every living creature. It is remarkably complex and at the same time ingenuously simple. 23 pairs of chromosomes in the nucleus of all human cells contain hundreds to thousands of genes. There are ~30,000 genes each making on average 3 proteins.
The double helix of the DNA, 2 twisting paired strands, are made of just 4 nucleotide bases.
You can have your DNA sequenced at low cost by companies such as Ancestry, 23andme which give reports on your DNA but these companies do not provide whole genome sequencing. Companies such as Nebula Genomics can do full genome sequencing, including mitochondrial DNA, and provide you with your own personal copy. Although it will probably be 100 gigabytes or so!
Although these companies offer GDPR privacy, it does bring up some interesting legal complications. Can you copyright your DNA as your property? Think of DNA left at a crime scene as discarded or lost property. Perhaps Dr. Boyle could help us out considering he is a Professor of International Law.
The Human Genome Project spawned many industries particularly in health and biological sciences but also raised concerns over its ethical uses. The US has its own dark past in the field of Eugenics and was directly involved in funding Nazi research. The figure below shows the familiar image of DNA and how the cost of sequencing has dropped dramatically.
The technology can be applied to any living thing and has been advanced significantly by the use of Micro Electro Mechanical Machines
The technological advances in the last ten years or so have been nothing short of remarkable. The figure below shows a desktop DNA sequencer which can be used for field work. Alongside is a nano injector used to insert DNA into living cells. Watch this video to see how it works.
Genes control every facet of who you are and a huge volume of research has been carried out to determine which genes may be responsible for something as trivial as eye colour to susceptibility to various forms of diseases.
Today’s technology not only allows the identification of certain genes but also the ability to modify them. This raises the worrisome idea of genetically modifying human embryos for enhancement as well as the treatment of diseases. Although experiments on human embryos are banned in most countries it is inevitable that these rules have been ignored and broken by some.
As we will see, CRISPR/Cas9 has been the game changer in the advancement in areas such as Gene Therapy for humans and genetically modified plants and animals. And viruses
The image below from the US FDA gives a clear picture of why viruses are so important to gene therapy and the suspicion that SARS-CoV2 was man made.
As can be seen, viruses are used as ‘vectors’ to carry modified DNA which will infect cells and start to replicate.
There has been a debate over whether viruses are dead or alive or occupy some grey space in between.
A virus only becomes ‘alive’, that is self-replicates, when it invades a cell. Before hand it is called a virion and it is lifeless. Now this is a strange concept. It it is known that a virion lying on a piece of copper has a shorter ‘infectious potential’ than a virion lying on a piece of paper for instance.
Why is this? If it is lifeless to begin with, why should where it has come from affect it’s potential to enter a cell and start to replicate itself?
“In 2015, researchers working on a Department of Defense grant compared infection rates at three hospitals, and found that when copper alloys were used in three hospitals, it reduced infection rates by 58%. A similar study was done in 2016 inside a pediatric intensive care unit, which charted a similarly impressive reduction in infection rate.” Source
Whilst this is an interesting sideline we should get back to our initial question on if, how and why the SARS-CoV2 virus was designed and made in a lab. Which segues nicely into the subject of:
Wikipedia defines synthetic virology thus:
“Synthetic virology is a branch of virology engaged in the study and engineering of synthetic man-made viruses. It is a multidisciplinary research field at the intersection of virology, synthetic biology, computational biology, and DNA nanotechnology, from which it borrows and integrates its concepts and methodologies. There is a wide range of applications for synthetic viral technology such as medical treatments, investigative tools, and reviving organisms. “
In 2002 a synthetic virus (Polio) created by “Cello, Paul and Wimmer, was the first test-tube synthesis of an organism in the absence of a natural template achieved outside living cells.”
“To construct the synthetic polio virus, lead scientist Eckard Wimmer of the State University of New York at Stony Brook used the poliovirus’ widely known genetic sequence to synthesize that virus from the building blocks of DNA and a broth of other chemicals. The followed a recipe they downloaded from the internet and used gene sequences from a mail-order supplier. Having constructed the virus, which appears to be identical to its natural counterpart, the researchers, from the University of New York at Stony Brook, injected it into mice to demonstrate that it was active. The animals were paralyzed and then died.”
Given that this was 2002, it was not as if you could download the ‘recipe’ and prepare it in your own kitchen. It did, however, prove the concept.
The ‘Spanish Flu’ or H1N1 influenza virus was recreated in 2005 by the US CDC. At first reading, this may seem like a strange virus to recreate given that it was proven to be so deadly. But perhaps because it was so deadly, it was worth researching. It should not however, be conflated with a corona virus.
In 2018 a paper describing the complete synthesis of the horsepox virus was published. This raised serious questions on ‘dual use’ research given that the smallpox virus could be reconstructed using the same blueprint.
Reconstructing these viruses is not easy. You cannot do this without the right equipment and scientific expertise.
But one frightening quote from the authors of the paper referenced above is:
“This is the largest virus assembled to date, and it shows that no viral pathogen is likely beyond the reach of synthetic biology.”
As frightening as these synthetic pathogens are, they are nothing compared to the accomplishment of the J. Craig Venter Institue which announced in 2010 the design and construction of the first minimal synthetic bacterial cell, JCVI-syn3.0.Although the cell only contained 531,000 base pairs and 473 genes it was, to all intents and purposes, synthetic life.
OK, it’s not Frankenstein’s monster, but no deity was involved in the making of this organism. In fact Venter even coded messages, ‘watermarks’, into the DNA sequence using a special code from the ACGT pairings. My favourite is
TO LIVE, TO ERR, TO FALL, TO TRIUMPH, TO RECREATE LIFE OUT OF LIFE.” – from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The most remarkable aspect of this is actually the thinking process which guided the bacterium’s creation. As Venter describes it:
“A biological cell is very much like a computer—the genome is the software that encodes the instructions of the cell and the cellular machinery is the hardware that interprets and runs the genome software. Major advances in DNA technologies have made it possible for biologists to now behave as software engineers and rewrite entire genomes to program new biological operating systems.”
Life has been reduced to a design, build, test paradigm using computers to design a novel genome which can be built in a lab.
This was 10 years ago and Venter is talking about a new paradigm using computers to design a new genome, synthesize it and ultimately create a new organism.
This is the AutoCad of gene design. You can download Gene Designer from ATUM for free. You can design a gene using a database of ‘building blocks’, specify the cloning and the vector for application and order online.
When you investigate the software available, you realise just how nascent this technology is. I hate to criticise, but they do look like some sort of Windows 3 interfaces. Although they are extremely powerful, you really need to know what you are doing.
The story so far
So far we know that it is possible to:
- Sequence any genome cheaply and accurately
- Create existing viruses and novel synthetic viruses
- Design, synthesise and create synthetic organisms – synthetic life
- Create new genes from libraries of existing ‘nuts and bolts’
- Use viruses as a ‘vector’ to deliver new gene sequences into cells for gene therapy
- Use ‘nano technology’ to interface biological systems and machines
We haven’t really touched on AI algorithms to analyse genomes to look for patterns of similarity and pathology or on nanotechnology and it’s effects on material science, or the developing interface between nano machines and biological machines. Or indeed, on evolution which is Nature’s method of adapting organisms from one generation to the next. Or, as Andrew Hessel says, ‘Life’s printing machine’.
In fact, there are volumes to be written on this coming 4th industrial revolution which is only at it’s beginning.
But we must look at CRISPR/Cas9 which has been described as the ‘game changer’ in synthetic biology, gene therapy and gene manipulation.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, thankfully, is also known by the acronym, CRISPR. They are repeats of genetic information that some bacterial species use as part of an antiviral defence mechanism.
Bacteria and archaea (single celled organisms) can be infected by viruses known as bacteriophages. These are the viruses that look like alien mutant mosquitoes
Treatment of bacterial diseases using phages has been around a long time and was studied in France, Georgia and Russia. It had a renaissance of such in the 1980’s but has never really caught on in western medicine. A fascinating article on phage treatment of human infections can be found can be found here.
It was noticed that the unique sequences of DNA between the ‘clustered repeats’ matched the DNA of viruses which regularly attacked the bacteria.
The bacteria had a way of recognising the DNA of invading viruses. But it was the CRISPR associate enzymes(Cas) that were the game changer. The pieces of viral DNA in the CRISPR sequences are taken from the viruses it has met in the past.
The bacterium recognises the virus from the pieces of DNA in it’s genome, the CRISPR sequences, and uses Cas enzymes to attack the virus by chopping it’s DNA in two stopping it from replicating.
As far as bacteria go, this is a fascinating albeit ‘blunt’ tool. The magic comes when the Cas9 enzyme is loaded with an RNA molecule that guides the Cas9 to the desired space in the target DNA. By using two Cas9 enzymes it is possible to not only cut out the selected gene but also replace it with any gene. As we have seen, this can also be a ‘designer’ gene.
The development of CRISPR/Cas9 is leading to new paradigms in how we think about molecular biology, gene editing and immune systems to name but a few areas. Allied to advances in micro chip and nano technology and micro machines we are truly entering the 4th industrial revolution.
CRISPR is being used everywhere from gene therapy in humans to agriculture and energy. It is truly a remarkable tool. But it still has its pitfalls. Mistakes can be made. No one has any idea of what most of the genes in the human genome actually do. The field of epigenetics where chemicals mark some genes and thus change the instructions for cells is still not understood.
It’s still unknown how viruses themselves have anti-CRISPR responses. After all, they are still here and still highly successful. They must have adapted to the threats.
We are playing Frankenstein with life without proper safeguards and controls or the understanding for what we are doing. The successes are coming out of the lab and being funded by billions of dollars by private industry whose only interest is in making profits for shareholders. This could be a dangerous game with nature which after 4 billion years of evolution has time on its side.
If you have doubts about how powerful nature is then watch this video from Harvard Medical School. It show how E-coli evolves to resist antibiotics. It is fascinating, as Spock would say.
In researching this article, one of the oddest yet endearing companies I discovered was Viagen Pets. You can preserve the genome of your pet and have it cloned after its eventual demise or presumably, even before. If you have the money! But would your cat do it for you?
Eventually we come back to the question ‘was SARS-Cov2 developed in a lab in Wuhan, China or indeed some other lab?’
The reasons put forth why the virus could not have been created in a lab amount to:
- It is so effective at attaching to human cells that the researchers said the spike proteins were the result of natural selection and not genetic engineering.
- If scientists had deliberately engineered this virus, they wouldn’t have chosen mutations that computer models suggest won’t work. But it turns out, nature is smarter than scientists, and the novel coronavirus found a way to mutate that was better — and completely different— from anything scientists could have created, the study found.
- The overall molecular structure of this virus is distinct from the known coronaviruses and instead most closely resembles viruses found in bats and pangolins that had been little studied and never known to cause humans any harm. (Source)
As for argument 1. Well they could have been genetically engineered. CRISPR/Cas9. Scientists have studied the spike proteins for some years. See this article from 2016 – Structure, Function, and Evolution of Coronavirus Spike Proteins.
As for argument 2. This isn’t even a rational argument. Where have I heard ‘computer models suggest’ before? Nature is not ‘smart’ in the sense that it had some sort of evolutionary goal in mind. Rather it is a process or reaction to circumstances. It is perfectly possible that someone thought, ‘I wonder what would happen if we changed these genes?’ That is how scientific knowledge itself evolves and that is what scientists do.
As for argument 3. The molecular structure is not so important. The genome is. I would be completely surprised if bat viruses were not being studied. ‘Bat viruses..have never been known to cause humans any harm’. Really? February 6th 2013
“In recent years, bats have received a lot of attention for their virus-hosting abilities. They’ve been shown to carry a number of harmful infections, including rabies and viruses related to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Moreover, research suggests bats may be the original hosts of nasty viruses such as Ebola and Nipah, which causes deadly brain fevers in people.”
Whether through bad luck, accident or design, it is entirely possible that SARS-Cov2 was ‘made’ in a lab. Perhaps it was designed to be a better vector for CRISPR/Cas9 gene modification as used in gene therapy. The arguments that it just ‘couldn’t be’ belies more knowledge than our ‘scientists’ have at their disposal to differentiate the devious from the stupid.
It is really impossible to say with any certainty from where this virus originated but it must include the possibility that it was man made. It could very well have been ‘designed’ and use or misuse of today’s technology cannot preclude that chance. Hanlon’s razor only has to cut once but deeply.
My own view is that it is hubris to view our species as superior to and apart from ‘nature’ and believe that nothing could evolve naturally which would dare to attack us. It can, it has, it does and it will. And we as a species will evolve. Our immune system will fight back in the dance of life. It can, it has, it does and it will.
One fact that we can be absolutely certain of is that the social, economic and political devastation brought about by the political over-reaction to SARS-Cov2 IS man made and will perhaps remain with us for generations.
But that is quite another story.
There are none.
This is 2020. Click the links and follow your own nose.
First published at Principia Scientific International