Chinese scientists are once again experimenting with strains of the mutant coronavirus.
Last month, a group of virologists from Beijing cloned and mutated a Covid-like virus found many years ago in a pangolin and used it to infect ‘humanized’ mice.
All eight mice infected with the GX_P2V virus died, prompting saddened headlines around the world.
The purpose of the research, the scientists said, was to determine the danger to humans from new Covid viruses and provide data to develop a universal vaccine – one that can protect against all coronaviruses.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the controversy surrounding the origins of Covid-19, the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, did not fare well.
Professor Francois Balloux, director of UCL’s Institute of Genetics, said it was “scientifically completely pointless”.
“I see nothing of vague interest to be learned from infecting a strange breed of humanized mice with a random virus,” he wrote on X. “On the contrary, I could see how such things go wrong…”
But despite the controversy and the potential risks, Chinese scientists are not the only ones who are mocking and hatching strains of the coronavirus to better understand them.
With the worst days of the pandemic behind us, there is a boom in research dedicated to genetically modifying Covid variants, cloning pathogens, virus hunting, and more.
Although some of it is happening in the east, much of the work is taking place in the UK, led by some of the biggest names in virology, as well as Germany, Switzerland, Japan, and the US.
The scientists involved argue that they have little to fear and much to gain.
They say the experiments, carried out in safe, high-security laboratories, are essential to better understanding Sars-CoV-2 and the wider coronavirus family to which it belongs.
A body called the G2P2-UK Consortium is leading this research in the UK.
Funded by the British taxpayer and run out of Imperial College London, it was set up with the aim of examining how current and emerging Covid variants are adapting in humans, and the ways in which they evolve to take possession of a population.
It also seeks to determine the role that different mutations – random changes in the genetic sequence of a virus – play in the characteristics of variants, in terms of their lethality, transmissibility, and ability to escape vaccine-induced immunity.
“To understand why different versions of anxiety behave differently, we need to identify which mutations in the genome cause these symptoms,” said Professor Wendy Barclay, head of the G2P2 Consortium.
This process usually begins when a new variant of Covid emerges that has acquired a range of mutations.
Those mutations that have not been seen before will be the focus of subsequent experiments. The Covid strain under investigation will have their genetic coding removed and inserted into the original Wuhan virus that emerged in late 2019 or, sometimes, another version of concern.
This process – known as ‘reverse genetics’ – changes the proteins of the virus responsible for its ability, say, to infect and replicate within human nasal cells, or its ability to avoid antibodies and other human defense mechanisms.
This modified virus will be exposed to human cells grown in the laboratory or in hamsters to see if these functions are increased or decreased.
By repeatedly ‘mixing and matching’ different mutations through these experiments, scientists can “narrow down” the mutations that are driving the variant’s troublesome characteristics, said Professor Stuart Neil, a virologist at the College the King, London.
“You can break it down to a single point mutation or a group of mutations.”
Professor Barclay said the work was crucial to answering many of the unknown questions surrounding Sars-CoV-2 during the pandemic crisis.
“For example, the original Covid virus replicates less efficiently in human nasal cells in the laboratory than Omicron and its sub-variants,” she said. “Why is that? Which ‘bits’ of the virus are responsible for this property?
“We can now say that these differences are due to the spike protein and in the future we can look out for mutations that could affect this property and warn health officials public if necessary.”
At first glance, the work appears to tap into the kind of genetic territory that enhances the characteristics of Sars-CoV-2 – an aspect of so-called “gain-of-function” research.
But there is a crucial difference: the scientists at the consortium are not adding any mutations to the virus that it has not already learned in the wild.
“We limit our studies to naturally occurring mutations that are already in the human population, we’re not giving the virus any function it didn’t already have,” said Professor Barclay.
This is different from gain-of-function experiments that could, for example, combine the worst symptoms of two different viruses and see what risk this ‘chimera’ pathogen poses to humans.
Although the G2P2-UK Consortium is not doing this kind of high-risk research, and neither are the Chinese virologists in Beijing, it does make sure to follow the strictest safety protocols when running its own ‘mix and match’ experiments.
Every project starts with a written risk assessment that requires a sign-off from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s workplace safety regulator. If the research is considered too dangerous, authorization will not be granted.
Meanwhile experiments related to the Covid virus are carried out in a ‘Containment Level 3’ laboratory – this is an airtight, gas-tight facility that uses a specialized airflow design to prevent the escape of dangerous pathogens.
It is one tier down from the highest level of laboratory biosafety, CL4, where the world’s deadliest diseases are handled – from ebola to smallpox.
These facilities and their staff, who are specifically trained to work in a CL3 laboratory, are inspected by the Health Service Executive at least once a year – although a Telegraph investigation earlier this year revealed a 50 per cent rise in leaks and laboratory accidents in Britain. since covid emerged.
The HSE is understood to be reviewing safety guidelines for laboratory experiments on the Covid-19 virus – including swapping mutations between variants.
Regulations for sampling, testing and analyzing Sars-CoV-2 were quickly implemented at the start of the pandemic but never updated.
Scientific understanding of “what makes the virus tick” has improved significantly since 2020, said one expert involved in the review, raising questions about whether laboratory protocols for the pathogen need to be strengthened — or relaxed.
An HSE spokesperson said: “Given that scientific knowledge of coronaviruses has now improved significantly, we want to know whether further risk assessment advice for genetically modified coronaviruses would benefit the scientific community. This scoping exercise is ongoing.”
There will, of course, always be risks in this area of work – especially when dealing with the unpredictability of ever-evolving viruses.
But the reward is worth advancing our scientific understanding and, with it, improving humanity’s preparedness against future biological threats, says Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University.
“Preparedness requires a certain amount of bravery, individually for the scientist, and collectively for society,” he said. “But preparedness saves lives.”
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about it Global Health Security