For Baric, this research began in the late 1990s. Coronavirus was considered low-risk at the time, but Barrick’s research on the genetics that allow the virus to enter human cells led him to believe that some viruses may have only a few mutations away from crossing the species barrier.
This hunch was confirmed between 2002 and 2003, when SARS broke out in southern China and infected 8,000 people. Barrick said that despite the bad situation, we still escaped the SARS bullet. The disease did not spread from one person to another until about a day after the onset of severe symptoms, which made it easier to isolate it through isolation and contact tracing. In that outbreak, only 774 people died, but if it spreads as easily as SARS-CoV-2, “we will have a pandemic with a 10% mortality rate,” Barrick said. “This is how close humans are to us.”
Although it is tempting to treat SARS as a one-time event, MERS emerged in 2012 and began to infect people in the Middle East. “For me personally, this is a wake-up call. The animal host must have many, many strains, and these strains are preparing for cross-species movement,” Barrick said.
By then, Shi’s team had found examples of this danger, and they had spent several years sampling bats in southern China to locate the origin of SARS. The project is part of a global virus surveillance effort led by the Eco-Health Alliance, a US non-profit organization. The non-profit organization has annual revenues of more than 16 million U.S. dollars, more than 90% of which comes from government funding—it has offices in New York, but cooperates with local research teams in other countries to carry out field and laboratory work. WIV is the jewel in its crown, and most of the key papers by EcoHealth Alliance Chairman Peter Daszak and Shi are co-authors.
By collecting thousands of samples from bird droppings, fecal swabs and bat tissues, and searching for gene sequences similar to SARS in these samples, Shi’s team began to discover many closely related viruses. In a cave in Yunnan Province in 2011 or 2012, they discovered the two most recent ones, which they named WIV1 and SHC014.
Shi managed to cultivate WIV1 from stool samples in her laboratory, and showed that it can directly infect human cells, proving that the SARS-like virus that is about to jump directly into humans from bats has been lurking in nature. According to Daszak and Shi, this indicates that the bat coronavirus is a “significant global threat”. They say that scientists need to find them and study them before they find us.
Many other viruses cannot grow, but Baric’s system provides a way to quickly test their spikes by designing them to resemble viruses. When the chimera he made using SHC014 was shown to be able to infect human cells in a petri dish, Daszak told the media that these revelations should “transfer the virus from a candidate emerging pathogen to a clear and real danger.”
For others, this is a perfect example of the unnecessary dangers of functional acquisition science. “The only effect of this work is to create a new type of unnatural risk in the laboratory,” Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright is a long-time critic of this type of research. He told “Nature” magazine.
For Barrick, the situation is more subtle. Although his creation may be more dangerous than the original mouse-adapted virus he used as the backbone, it is still weak compared to SARS—certainly not the super virus that Senator Paul later suggested.
In the end, the suppression of the National Institutes of Health never had teeth. It includes a clause, “If the head of the funding agency determines that research is urgently needed to protect public health or national security.” Not only is Baric’s research allowed to advance, but all researches applying for exemptions are also allowed to advance. Funding restrictions were lifted in 2017 and replaced by a more relaxed system.
Tyvek protective clothing and respirator
If NIH is looking for a scientist to satisfy regulatory agencies with gain-of-function research, Baric is the obvious choice. Over the years, he has insisted on taking additional safety measures, and painstakingly pointed out these in his 2015 paper, as if modeling the way forward.
This CDC admits Four levels of biosafety, and suggest which pathogens should be studied at which level. Biosafety level 1 applies to harmless organisms, and almost no precautions are required: wear a lab coat and gloves as needed. BSL-2 is suitable for the moderately dangerous pathogens that have been circulating in this area, Relatively mild intervention: close the door, put on goggles, and dispose of waste in the autoclave. BSL-3 is where things get serious. It is suitable for pathogens that can spread through the respiratory tract and cause serious diseases, such as influenza and SARS, and related agreements include multiple barriers to escape. The laboratory is separated by two sets of self-closing locked doors; the air is filtered; the personnel use a full set of PPE and N95 masks and are subject to medical monitoring. BSL-4 is for the worst bad guys, such as Ebola and Marlborough: the full moon suit and dedicated air system are added to the arsenal.
“There are no enforceable standards for what you should and shouldn’t do. It depends on individual countries, institutions and scientists.”
Filippa Lentzos, King’s College London
In Baric’s laboratory, BSL-3 researched chimeras and enhanced them with additional steps. For example, all workers need to wear Tyvek protective clothing, double gloves, and electric air respirators. The local emergency team regularly participates in drills to increase their familiarity with the laboratory. All workers have been monitored for infection, and the local hospital has established procedures for dealing with new scientists. It may be one of the safest BSL-3 facilities in the world.This is still not enough to stop some mistakes Over the years: Some scientists have even been bitten by mice carrying the virus. But there is no infection.
In 2014, the National Institutes of Health provided a five-year grant worth US$3.75 million to the Eco-Health Alliance to study the risk of more bat-transmitted coronaviruses in China, using the one pioneered by Baric The same technology. Some of this work will be subcontracted to Wuhan Virus Research Institute.