Since the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, the scientific community is debating regarding the transparency of virus research. This is specifically regarding the federally funded research that involves making pathogens more deadly or more transmissible for research purposes. But is it worth it if it can risk the public health in case it escapes the lab environment? How do we make it more ethical? Let’s first understand the basics of Gain of Function research for this.
Crux of the Matter
What Is Gain Of Function? GoF is a study that involves creation of pathogens with additional functionalities than occur in nature. This could even lead to creation of pathogens that are more transmissible and deadlier.
Why Would We Do That? It is performed to understand the way in which a pathogen adapts to environmental pressures. This allows disease control measures to be better planned, and potential vaccines to be explored. Also research on bio-weapons and vaccines is carried out in case a malicious entity weaponises such pathogens.
Controversy With GoF In 2012, a team worked on a paper, Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets for genetically modifying H5V1 virus by creating a strain that was airborne in ferrets. This demonstrated that it was possible for the avian influenza virus to become transmissible in air and that the strain was sensitive to certain antiviral drugs.
Research Stopped The possibility of an accidental or intentional malicious release of such a virus caused the US to halt funding for GoF research relating to influenza, SARS, or MERS in 2014.
Research Restarted In 2017, National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity concluded that very few such experiments posed a risk to public safety. So the ban was lifted and White House developed an ethical analysis white paper.
What’s In The White Paper
Transparency In Research In such analysis, expert-panel members are not publicly available, nor are its reviews of study proposals.
We’re not trying to say the policy is wrong, we’re trying to say the policy is ambiguous
Marc Lipsitch, Harvard epidermiologist
Unknown Origins Of Covid-19 There have been theories about Covid-19 causing SARS-CoV-2 emerging as a result of Gain of Function research. That’s because the pandemic started in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, which also houses the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that conducts research on bat coronaviruses. Till date, we don’t know if Covid-19 originated in the wild or in the lab.
The word Pathogenic came into existence in 1852 and the word Pathogen was derived from ‘Pathogenic’ during the 1880s. In Greek, the word Pathogenic means “origin of suffering“.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek invented the first microscope in the 1600s. It was a single lens microscope made with a very small glass ball lens. With the help of that microscope he then rediscovered the red blood cells and Spermatozoa.
Fungi’s medicinal significance was discovered in 1928 by Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming. Fungi can also be eaten; for example, certain mushrooms, morels, and truffles are considered epicurean delicacies, and mycoproteins (fungal proteins) obtained from the mycelia of some fungi are used to produce high-protein foods.
While the world still fights the pandemic Novel Coronavirus, people were thrown in a state of panic after hearing about a Chinese person dying of Hantavirus. Complete Coverage: Coronavirus
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Another Virus Scare from China Hantavirus is not a new virus. However, the medication available for this virus is limited today. A man from Yunnan province in China died of the virus while traveling to Shandong province, stated Global-Times. The other 32 on-board passengers are also being tested for the virus. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hantavirus found in America is known as “New World” Hantavirus. “New World” Hantavirus may cause Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS). But another type of Hantavirus found in Asia and Europe, known as “Old World” Hantavirus, may cause Haemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome (HFRS).
History of Hantavirus Hantavirus is named after the river Hanta in South Korea. As the virus spread for the first time through an infected rodent in the small field near river Hanta, it is named Hantavirus. During the Korean War, 3000 soldiers were tested positive with Hantavirus and fell victims of hemorrhagic fever, of whom 10% died.
Corona v/s Hanta The virus spreads only by the host rodents, which makes it significantly less infectious than Novel Coronavirus. People get infected with Hantavirus when they breathe the virus stirred up in the air from rodents’ urine, droppings and nesting material. Symptoms of Hantavirus are dizziness, fever, headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. It is hard to find symptoms of Hantavirus in the initial stages and can be mistaken for influenza.
How do Viruses Spread? A virus particle or a virion consists of nucleic acid, coat of protein and lipid membrane. Unlike human cells or bacteria, viruses don’t contain the enzymes needed to carry out the chemical reactions for life. Instead, they carry only one or two enzymes that decode their genetic instructions. So, a virus must have a host cell (bacteria, plant or animal) in order to live and make more viruses.
Once they enter the desired host cell available in its nearest vicinity, they follow the lytic cycle to invade its chemical machinery. As they start attacking cells in a human body, the immune system responds to the infection, and in the process of fighting, it produces chemicals called pyrogens that cause your body temperature to increase. This fever helps you to fight the infection by slowing down the rate of viral reproduction. Generally, the body’s chemical reactions have an optimal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). More Info
COVID-19 has put a deadly stop to the normal life of all the citizens in more than 160countries around the world. It’s about time we understand how a virus works. In order to satiate our curiosity about how a tiny infectious agent can spread like a wildfire, we ought to know what’s the story behind the global pandemics that have affected humans to date and both changes that followed temporarily and permanently in their daily lives. Complete coverage: Coronavirus
Crux of the Matter
The ‘Viral’ Trend: How do Viruses Spread? A virus particle or a virion consists of nucleic acid, coat of protein and lipid membrane. Unlike human cells or bacteria, viruses don’t contain the enzymes needed to carry out the chemical reactions for life. Instead, they carry only one or two enzymes that decode their genetic instructions. So, a virus must have a hostcell (bacteria, plant or animal) in order to live and make more viruses.
Once they enter the desired host cell available in its nearest vicinity, they follow the lytic cycle to invade its chemical machinery. As they start attacking cells in a human body, the immune system responds to the infection, and in the process of fighting, it produces chemicals called pyrogens that cause your body temperature to increase. This fever helps you to fight the infection by slowing down the rate of viral reproduction. Generally, the body’s chemical reactions have an optimal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius).
About Outbreaks, Epidemics and Pandemics
As an epidemiologist listening to the steady stream of conversation around the coronavirus, I’m hearing newscasters and neighbours alike mixing up three important words my colleagues and I use in our work every day.
– Rebecca S.B. Fischer, The Conversation
Outbreaks are medical events that happen at a smaller scale. If we take up an analogy, imagine an unusual spike in the number of children with a fever at a daycare. One or two sick kids might be normal in a typical week, but if 15 children in daycare come down with fever all at once, that is an outbreak. When a new disease emerges, outbreaks are more noticeable since the anticipated number of illnesses caused by that disease was zero. So the group of pneumonia cases that sprung up unexpectedly among market-goers in Wuhan, China, were considered a part of an outbreak initially before the real culprit emerged as the novel coronavirus or COVID-19.
An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time. It occurs when there is a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease, in a community or a particular geographical area. Many people aren’t familiar with these epidemics unless they’re directly affecting their home region. A few of them include: The Zika Virus of continental US, Ebola virus of Africa and SARS Epidemic in Asia.
Pandemic is international and out of control. So once an epidemic spreads to multiple countries anda large number of peoplein different regions of the world altogether, it is considered a pandemic. However, epidemiologists classify a situation as a pandemic only once the disease is sustained in some of the newly affected regions through local transmission. Say, a sick traveler with COVID-19 who returns to the U.S. from China doesn’t make a pandemic until they start infecting family members and friends visiting him/her. Neither the CDC nor the WHO specify how many countries or how many people need to be affected in order for something to be declared a pandemic, like in the case of 1918 and 2009 Pandemics. (H1N1 Virus)
History of Past Pandemic Preparedness, Century by Century Human society has always been subject to major pandemics and has dealt with them over the millennia in various ways including denial, misinformation carriers, quarantine measures and ultimately vaccine usage.
Take the Black Death of 1346-53. Killing over 50 million people and finishing off 60% of Europe’s entire population, it was a pandemic of bubonic plague. The disease was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulated among wild rodents which lived in a plague reservoir or focus area in insane numbers. Transmitted from these rats to humans via bites of infected fleas, it is thought to have ended because of quarantine and personal hygiene adopted by all the survivors along with the practice of cremations rather than burials.
Finally came the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. The cause of 50 million deaths globally, the spread of the malady is linked to the trans-Atlantic deployments of American forces in the final days of World War I, and to the victorious return home of Allied forces after November 1918. If enough awareness had surfaced regarding the preparedness measures to be taken, more people wouldn’t have died due to the flu rather than the World War I’s battlefield itself. A strict maritime quarantine was imposed after the authorities could not give a uniform response.
The 1817–1824Cholera pandemic started in India’s Ganges delta and was caused by a bacterium called Vibrio Cholerae that survived in warm and salty water. It wasn’t known outside northeast India, but the British Empire, conquering North India, opened up trade routes and the railways spread it rapidly when it got to Europe, killing millions of people with the exact number of figures remain unknown till date. Scientists believe the transmission stopped all of a sudden due to cold weather conditions.
So while cholera has largely been eradicated in developed countries now, it’s still a persistent killer in third-world countries lacking adequate sewage treatment and access to clean drinking water.
How Bad is COVID-19? With total Novel Coronavirus death count reaching 14,927 on March 22, it still pales in comparison to other pandemics throughout recorded human history. With the world-wide lockdowns, the course of an entire generation can either be changed or this time could go down as yet another battle won in the human survival timeline.
On the fact forefront, fatality rates give a fair enough idea of how many people have actually been infected and how many have died. However people likely to have mild infections haven’t been counted by researchers, so there is a possibility of a fudged data being represented as of now. Preliminary datasuggest roughly 2% of people who tested positive for the virus have died. Yet times have changed in terms of availability of modern sanitation techniques, advanced research methodologies in medicine and social media tools for instant awareness. After all, 3 and a half months after it started creating havoc, the talks of vaccine trials for COVID-19 gives a rather promising outlook to us global patriots.
If the virologists work ethically, government issues public measures of containment proactively in time and the citizens believe in taking each and every action of theirs seriously, it would help in controlling the ongoing pandemic and normalising things in our day to day life once again.
A virus is a biological agent that reproduces inside the cells of living hosts. When infected by a virus, a host cell is forced to quickly produce thousands of identical copies of the original virus. Unlike most living things, viruses do not have cells that divide; new viruses are assembled in the infected host cell. But unlike still simpler infectious agents like prions, viruses contain genes, which gives them the ability to mutate and evolve. Over 4,800 species of viruses have been discovered. The origins of viruses are unclear: some may have evolved from plasmids i.e pieces of DNA that can move between cells while others may have evolved from bacteria. A virus consists of two or three parts: genes, made from either DNA or RNA, long molecules that carry genetic information and a protein coat that protects the genes. More Info
RNA v/s DNA – Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a polymeric molecule essential in various biological roles in coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes. DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is a long molecule that contains our unique genetic code. Both RNA and DNA are nucleic acids, and, along with lipids, proteins and carbohydrates, constitute the four major macromolecules essential for all known forms of life. Like DNA, RNA is assembled as a chain of nucleotides, but unlike DNA, RNA is found in nature as a single strand folded onto itself, rather than a paired double strand. Cellular organisms use messenger RNA (mRNA) to convey genetic information (using the nitrogenous bases of guanine, uracil, adenine, and cytosine, denoted by the letters G, U, A, and C) that directs synthesis of specific proteins. Many viruses encode their genetic information using an RNA genome. More Info
A vaccine is a biological preparation that provides active acquired immunity to a particular infectious disease. It typically contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism and is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe, its toxins, or one of its surface proteins. The agent stimulates the body’s immune system to recognize the agent as a threat, destroy it, and to further recognize and destroy any of the microorganisms associated with that agent that it may encounter in the future. Vaccines can be prophylactic, to prevent or ameliorate the effects of a future infection by a natural or wild pathogen, or therapeutic like the vaccines against cancer, which are being investigated. More Info
A team of scientists at the University of Oxford has discovered that a protein called Hemo, made by a fetus and the placenta, is produced from viral DNA that entered our ancestors’ genomes 100 million years ago. This protein that courses through the veins of pregnant women, may reawaken retrovirus that contributes to diseases like multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and schizophrenia.
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There is a Retro Version of a Virus too? A retrovirus (RV) invades a host cell and inserts its genes into that cell’s DNA. These viral genes co-opt the cell’s machinery, using it to make new viruses that escape to infect more cells. If a retrovirus happens to infect an egg or sperm, its DNA can potentially be passed to the next generation and the generation after that. They can force cells to make copies of their DNA, which are inserted back in the cell’s own genome.
What do the Virologists Know About it? Aris Katzourakis, avirologist at the University of Oxford, and his colleagues recently published a commentary in the journal Trends in Microbiology in which they explored the possibility of viral genes affecting our health in a variety of unexpected ways. In January, Dr. Katzourakis was a co-author on a study showing that one retrovirus common in mammals also is present in fish like cod and tuna.
A team of French researchers engineered healthy human cells to make a viral protein found in many tumors and watched the cells grow in a petri dish. They changed shape, as cancer cells do, becoming long and skinny. And they also started to move across the dish.
Can These Ancient Genomes be Used for a Good Cause? Researchers have added that some of the RVs become endogenous retroviruses that provide an innate immune response, which is the body’s first line of defense against pathogens. They can fight off infections including viruses and bacteria. A genome-editing technique was used to remove an ERV sequence that was found close to an immunity gene. The team will next investigate whether endogenous retroviruses play a similar role in the immune systems of other animals
DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is a long molecule that contains our unique genetic code. Like a recipe book, it holds the instructions for making all the proteins in our bodies. DNA contains four basic building blocks or ‘bases’: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). The order, or sequence, of these bases form the instructions in the genome. Being a two-stranded molecule, it has a unique ‘double helix’ shape, like a twisted ladder. The human genome is made of 3.2 billion bases of DNA but other organisms have different genome sizes. It was first discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson with the help of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. More Info
Scientists recently revealed the existence of 28 never-before-seen virus groups at two ice cores from a Tibetan glacier. For the past 15,000 years, this glacier on the northwestern Tibetan Plateau of China played hosts to unusual guests: an ensemble of frozen viruses, many of them unknown to modern science. The findings have been posted in a paper of the bioRxiv database, an open-access preprint repository for the biological sciences.
Crux of the Matter
In 2015, when researchers embarked on an expedition to retrieve the oldest ice on the planet, they were doing it to look for clues about past climate and stumbled upon the Guliya ice cap in China’s Tibet.
The scientists retrieved the ancient viruses by drilling 50 meters deep into the glacier ice. To rule out any contamination, they developed an original method to study the microbes in the lab.
Out of the 33 groups of virus genuses or genera, 28 were previously undisclosed to science. The researchers reportedly wrote in the study how the microbes differed significantly across the two ice cores.
The critters they found represent the microbes that were present in the atmosphere at the time they were trapped in the ice, giving scientists a window to understanding the past climate and microbial evolution.
Chantal Abergel, a researcher in environmental virology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research said “We are very far from sampling the entire diversity of viruses on Earth.” As human-made climate change melts glaciers the world over, these viral archives could be lost.
Virus is a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses can infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants to microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea. Since Dmitri Ivanovsky’s 1892 article describing a non-bacterial pathogen infecting tobacco plants, and the discovery of the tobacco mosaic virus by Martinus Beijerinck in 1898 about 5,000 virus species have been described in detail, although there are millions of types. Viruses are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and are the most numerous type of biological entity. The study of viruses is known as virology, a sub-speciality of microbiology. The shapes of these virus particles range from simple helical and icosahedral forms for some species to more complex structures for others. More Info