If SARS-CoV-2 has frazzled your nerves, I have bad news for you. Scientists are already cooking up more virulent and lethal versions.
In a January 22, 2021, Twitter post, biotech entrepreneur Yuri Deigin highlighted a study posted on the preprint server bioRxiv at the end of December 2020, saying:
“Ok, the prize for the craziest and most dangerous gain-of-function research goes out to Italian virologists who took SARS[-CoV-]2 and passaged it in vitro in the presence of neutralizing antibodies.2 It quickly obliged and mutated to escape them. Yay for a novel, more dangerous SARS3!”
“Passaging” refers to a genetic engineering technique where a virus is grown in a series of different animal tissue cultures. With each “pass,” the virus will mutate slightly, gaining different functions.
Serial Passaging Allows Virus To Jump Species
As just one example, a potential outcome of this somewhat crude technique (considering the genetic engineering technology now available) would be that the virus could gain the ability to infect a host species it could not infect before.
Some experts have speculated that this might be one way in which SARS-CoV-2 was created.
In an in-depth article3 published in New York magazine January 4, 2021, Nicholson Baker reviewed the history of viral gain-of-function research, providing the following example of serial passaging:
“Baric … described in this early paper how his lab was able to train a coronavirus, MHV, which causes hepatitis in mice, to jump species, so that it could reliably infect BHK (baby-hamster kidney) cell cultures.
They did it using serial passaging: repeatedly dosing a mixed solution of mouse cells and hamster cells with mouse-hepatitis virus, while each time decreasing the number of mouse cells and upping the concentration of hamster cells.
At first, predictably, the mouse-hepatitis virus couldn’t do much with the hamster cells, which were left almost free of infection, floating in their world of foetal-calf serum.
But by the end of the experiment, after dozens of passages through cell cultures, the virus had mutated: It had mastered the trick of parasitizing an unfamiliar rodent. A scourge of mice was transformed into a scourge of hamsters …”