Feb 26, 2020 - Health

Dual-use dilemma in synthesizing the coronavirus

Illustration of an exclamation point sign with a virus cell as the dot on the exclamation point.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A lab in North Carolina is working to synthesize a sample of the coronavirus from its genetic code, according to MIT Technology Review.

Why it matters: Creating a pathogen from scratch would allow researchers to rapidly experiment on it without waiting for live samples from an outbreak zone. But it also raises the risk that someone could eventually try to re-create a dangerous virus as a weapon.

Driving the news: Coronavirus expert Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina took the genetic code of the pathogen, posted online last month by Chinese researchers, and ordered custom DNA.

  • He will be able to stitch the genes together into a virus indistinguishable from the one that has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, MIT Tech's Antonio Regalado writes.
  • "This is the future in terms of how the medical research community responds to a new threat,” Baric told Regalado.

Background: Scientists managed to isolate and sequence the new coronavirus only two weeks after public health officials first reported the virus to the World Health Organization — far quicker than the months that passed before the virus that caused SARS was identified in 2003.

  • The cost of DNA synthesis has also fallen drastically, and many commercial companies now offer custom-made genes that can be shipped by mail.

Once they've synthesized the virus, researchers will also be able to edit it as they might a document, adding and subtracting genes in an effort to understand how it spreads and sickens people.

  • Past disease events like the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic and the 2014 Ebola outbreak often ran their course before new countermeasures could be developed and distributed.
  • Synthesizing the virus could help health officials move almost as fast as the pathogen itself.

The catch: If a virus can be synthesized from nothing more than its genetic code and mail-order DNA, it means a deadly pathogen can never really be eliminated.

  • In 2002, researchers synthesized a poliovirus from genetic code found online, demonstrating for the first time that terrorists could theoretically create their own bioweapons with open-source information.
  • In 2017, the Canadian virologist David Evans shocked the medical community when he used the same synthetic biology tools to synthesize a close relative of the smallpox virus, which had killed hundreds of millions of people before it was declared eradicated in 1980.

The International Gene Synthesis Consortium, a group of DNA synthesis companies that screens gene orders, prohibits its members from synthesizing the gene sequences of dangerous viruses like smallpox. Only labs registered with the CDC to work with SARS — as Baric's is — will be able to order a complete synthetic copy of the new coronavirus.

  • But the consortium only represents 80% of the global DNA synthesis market.

My thought bubble: Synthesizing viruses from scratch still requires considerable resources and skill. But as that changes, synthetic biology will present a troubling dual-use dilemma — the same tools that could help counter an outbreak could be employed to create one.

Go deeper