The Covid-19 revives the debate around the manipulation of viruses

Shi Zhengli at the P4 laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), in 2017. Nicknamed

Could Boston become the next Wuhan, with the tourist arcades of Quincy Market playing the role of detonator that was that of the Huanan market in the Covid-19 pandemic? The question, half-serious, half-provocative, was asked on Twitter on October 18 by Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the renowned Broad Institute of MIT, in the wake of the pre-publication of an experiment on the BioRxiv server.

Researchers from Boston University report the manufacture of a chimeric SARS-CoV-2, combining the hypercontagious but not very virulent Omicron variant with a much more deadly (but less contagious) variant, dating from the start of the pandemic. Results ? A pathogen worse than each of its two parents: deadly, because it is able to infect the deep lung, and contagious, because it is able to escape the immune system more effectively.

This experiment has contributed, along with a series of other recent publications, to inflaming the community of virologists, which is now increasingly torn apart on the question of biological risks: what is a dangerous experiment? Who is to decide this and according to what process? Never have these questions seemed so pressing, nor have they divided virology so much. It must be said that the worst pandemic of the XXIe century, that of Covid-19, has been there and has profoundly renewed this controversy, giving it unprecedented scope, acuteness and urgency. Its consequences could change the practices of virology at the international level, and even, beyond, of all the life sciences.

Dangerous “gain of function” game

Certainly, apparently, the debate is not really new – especially as the history of virology is studded with accidents and laboratory leaks, even among the most secure –, but it has now changed scale. Virus recombination, mutation and “rewriting” experiments (not to mention infections of human cell cultures or “humanized” mice) have become extremely commonplace in just a few years; and among them, those that increase the dangerousness of pathogens are numerous. Specialists modestly qualify these experiments as “gain of function” to indicate that the modified pathogen acquires or develops a problematic property: contagiousness, virulence, immune or drug evasion. When these aggravated viruses have pandemic potential, they are often referred to by the less euphemistic term “Frankenvirus”.

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