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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

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

Investors increase their exuberance

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

U.S. stocks jumped across the board on Monday and the S&P 500 had its best day since June 5, as the bulls stepped in and bought the dips in stock prices following last week's minor selloff.

Why it matters: While some have worried rising U.S. interest rates would dampen investor exuberance over the expected pickup in economic growth thanks to increasing vaccine numbers and big fiscal spending hopes, Monday showed investors still like risk assets. A lot.

3 hours ago - World

China and Russia vaccinate the world — for now

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

While the U.S. and Europe focus on vaccinating their own populations, China and Russia are sending millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses to countries around the world.

Why it matters: China's double success in controlling its domestic outbreak and producing several viable vaccines has allowed it to focus on providing doses abroad — an effort that could help to save lives across several continents.

Ina Fried, author of Login
3 hours ago - Technology

China will dominate AI unless U.S. invests more, commission warns

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S., which once had a dominant head start in artificial intelligence, now has just a few years' lead on China and risks being overtaken unless government steps in, according to a new report to Congress and the White House.

Why it matters: Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who chaired the committee that issued the report, tells Axios that the U.S. risks dire consequences if it fails to both invest in key technologies and fully integrate AI into the military.