Lab-Made? SARS-CoV-2 Genealogy Through the Lens of Gain-of-Function Research

Staff celebrating the physical completion of the laboratory in 2015, Wuhan, China (Source)

If you hear anyone claim “we know the virus didn’t come from a lab”, don’t buy it — it may well have. Labs around the globe have been creating synthetic viruses like CoV2 for years. And no, its genome would not necessarily contain hallmarks of human manipulation: modern genetic engineering tools permit cutting and pasting genomic fragments without leaving a trace. It can be done quickly, too: it took a Swiss team less than a month to create a synthetic clone of CoV2.

How I Learned to Start Worrying

Currently, no clinical treatments or prevention strategies are available for any human coronavirus. Given the conserved RBDs of SARS-CoV and bat SARSr-CoVs, some anti-SARS-CoV strategies in development, such as anti-RBD antibodies or RBD-based vaccines, should be tested against bat SARSr-CoVs. Recent studies demonstrated that anti-SARS-CoV strategies worked against only WIV1 and not SHC014. In addition, little information is available on HKU3-related strains that have much wider geographical distribution and bear truncations in their RBD. Similarly, anti-S antibodies against MERS-CoV could not protect from infection with a pseudovirus bearing the bat MERSr-CoV S. Furthermore, little is known about the replication and pathogenesis of these bat viruses. Thus, future work should be focused on the biological properties of these viruses using virus isolation, reverse genetics and in vitro and in vivo infection assays. The resulting data would help the prevention and control of emerging SARS-like or MERS-like diseases in the future.

Aim 3. In vitro and in vivo characterization of SARSr-CoV spillover risk, coupled with spatial and phylogenetic analyses to identify the regions and viruses of public health concern. We will use S protein sequence data, infectious clone technology, in vitro and in vivo infection experiments and analysis of receptor binding to test the hypothesis that % divergence thresholds in S protein sequences predict spillover potential.


Overall structure of 2019-nCoV RBD bound with ACE2.
(a) Overall topology of 2019-nCoV spike monomer. NTD, N-terminal domain. RBD, receptor-binding domain. RBM, receptor-binding motif. SD1, subdomain 1. SD2, subdomain 2. FP, fusion peptide. HR1, heptad repeat 1. HR2, heptad repeat 2. TM, transmembrane region. IC, intracellular domain.
(b) Sequence and secondary structures of 2019-nCoV RBD. The RBM is colored red.
© Overall structure of 2019-nCoV RBD bound with ACE2. ACE2 is colored green. 2019-nCoV RBD core is colored cyan and RBM is colored red. Disulfide bonds in the 2019-nCoV RBD are shown as stick and indicated by yellow arrows. The N-terminal helix of ACE2 responsible for binding is labeled.


Pangolins used in the study were confiscated by Customs and Department of Forestry of Guangdong Province in March-December 2019. They include four Chinese pangolins (Manis pentadactyla) and 25 Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica). These animals were sent to the wildlife rescue center, and were mostly inactive and sobbing, and eventually died in custody despite exhausting rescue efforts. Tissue samples were taken from the lung, lymph nodes, liver, spleen, muscle, kidney, and other tissues from pangolins that had just died for histopathological and virological examinations.

We received frozen tissue (lungs, intestine, blood) samples that were collected from 18 Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) during August 2017-January 2018. These pangolins were obtained during the anti-smuggling operations by Guangxi Customs. Strikingly, high-throughput sequencing of their RNA revealed the presence of coronaviruses in six (two lung, two intestine, one lung-intestine mix, one blood) of 43 samples. With the sequence read data, and by filling gaps with amplicon sequencing, we were able to obtain six full or nearly full genome sequences — denoted GX/P1E, GX/P2V, GX/P3B, GX/P4L, GX/P5E and GX/P5L — that fall into the 2019-CoV2 lineage (within the genus Betacoronavirus) in a phylogenetic analysis (Figure 1a).

More notable, however, was the observation of putative recombination signals between the pangolins coronaviruses, bat coronaviruses RaTG13, and human 2019-CoV2 (Figure 1c, d). In particular, 2019-CoV2 exhibits very high sequence similarity to the Guangdong pangolin coronaviruses in the receptor-binding domain (RBD; 97.4% amino acid similarity; indicated by red arrow in Figure 1c and Figure 2a), even though it is most closely related to bat coronavirus RaTG13 in the remainder of the viral genome. Bat CoV RaTG and the human 2019-CoV2 have only 89.2% amino acid similarity in RBD. Indeed, the Guangdong pangolin coronaviruses and 2019-CoV2 possess identical amino acids at the five critical residues of the RBD, whereas RaTG13 only shares one amino acid with 2019-CoV2 (residue 442, human SARS-CoV numbering).

Interestingly, a phylogenetic analysis of synonymous sites alone in the RBD revealed that the phylogenetic position of the Guangdong pangolin is consistent with that in the remainder of the viral genome, rather than being the closest relative of 2019-CoV2 (Figure 2b). Hence, it is possible that the amino acid similarity between the RBD of the Guangdong pangolin coronaviruses and 2019-CoV2 is due to selectively-mediated convergent evolution rather than recombination, although it is difficult to choose between these scenarios on current data.

Royal Genealogy

(Image Source)

A Killer Intro

Infection of hamsters shows that one of the variants (Del-mut-1) which carries deletion of 10 amino acids (30 bp) does not cause the body weight loss or more severe pathological changes in the lungs that is associated with wild type virus infection.

Virus replication in the lung tissues of hamsters infected with either WT or Del-mut-1 SARS-CoV-2 virus. Virus titration by plaque assay of lung and tracheal tissues collected on day 2 and 4 post-infection

Patients with hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular illness, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney dysfunction have worse clinical outcomes when infected with SARS-CoV-2, for unknown reasons. The purpose of this review is to summarize the evidence for the existence of elevated plasmin(ogen) in COVID-19 patients with these comorbid conditions. Plasmin, and other proteases, may cleave a newly inserted furin site in the S protein of SARS-CoV-2, extracellularly, which increases its infectivity and virulence.

It was found that all Spike with a SARS-CoV-2 Spike sequence homology greater than 40% did not have a furin cleavage site (Figure 1, Table 1), including Bat-CoV RaTG13 and SARS-CoV (with sequence identity as 97.4% and 78.6%, respectively). The furin cleavage site “RRAR” in SARS-CoV-2 is unique in its family, rendering by its unique insert of “PRRA”. The furin cleavage site of SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to have evolved from MERS, HCoV-HKU1, and so on. From the currently available sequences in databases, it is difficult for us to find the source. Perhaps there are still many evolutionary intermediate sequences waiting to be discovered.

To investigate whether proteolytic cleavage at the basic amino acid residues, were it to occur, might facilitate cell–cell fusion activity, we mutated the wild-type SARS-CoV glycoprotein to construct a prototypic furin recognition site (RRSRR) at either position.

To examine the potential use of the SARS-CoV S1–S2 and S2′ positions as sites for proteolytic cleavage, we first introduced furin cleavage recognition sites at these locations by making the following mutations 664-SLLRSTSQSI — SLLRRSRRSI-671 (S1–S2) and 792-LKPTKRSF — LKRTKRSF-799 (S2′).

Beijing 2019

Mutation of the S2' site of QX genotype (QX-type) spike protein (S) in a recombinant virus background results in higher pathogenicity, pronounced neural symptoms and neurotropism when compared with conditions in wild-type IBV (WT-IBV) infected chickens. In this study, we present evidence suggesting that recombinant IBV with a mutant S2' site (furin-S2' site) leads to higher mortality. Infection with mutant IBV induces severe encephalitis and breaks the blood–brain barrier.

In summary, our results demonstrate that the furin cleavage site upstream of the FP in S protein is an important site for CoV, modulating entry, cell–virus fusion, adaptation to its host cell, cell tropism and pathogenicity, but not antigenicity.

To evaluate the potential genetic changes required for HKU4 to infect human cells, we reengineered HKU4 spike, aiming to build its capacity to mediate viral entry into human cells. To this end, we introduced two single mutations, S746R and N762A, into HKU4 spike. The S746R mutation was expected to restore the hPPC motif in HKU4 spike, whereas the N762A mutation likely disrupted the potential N-linked glycosylation site in the hECP motif in HKU4 spike.

We examined the capability of the mutant HKU4 spike to mediate viral entry into three types of human cells (Fig. 3A for HEK293T cells; data not shown for Huh-7 and MRC-5 cells), using a pseudovirus entry assay as previously described (14). In the absence of exogenous protease trypsin, HKU4 pseudoviruses bearing either the reengineered hPPC motif or the reengineered hECP motif were able to enter human cells, whereas HKU4 pseudoviruses bearing both of the reengineered human protease motifs entered human cells as efficiently as when activated by exogenous trypsin (Fig. 3A). In contrast, wild-type HKU4 pseudoviruses failed to enter human cells. Therefore, the reengineered hPPC and hECP motifs enabled HKU4 spike to be activated by human endogenous proteases and thereby allowed HKU4 pseudoviruses to bypass the need for exogenous proteases to enter human cells. These results reveal that HKU4 spike needs only two single mutations at the S1/S2 boundary to gain the full capacity to mediate viral entry into human cells.

Briefly, MERS-CoV-spike-pseudotyped retroviruses expressing a luciferase reporter gene were prepared by cotransfecting HEK293T cells with a plasmid carrying Env-defective, luciferase-expressing HIV-1 genome (pNL4–3.luc.R-E-) and a plasmid encoding MERS-CoV spike protein.

Where Did RaTG13 Come From?

We then found that a short region of RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) from a bat coronavirus (BatCoV RaTG13) — which was previously detected in Rhinolophus affinis from Yunnan province — showed high sequence identity to 2019-CoV2. We carried out full-length sequencing on this RNA sample (GISAID accession number EPI_ISL_402131). Simplot analysis showed that 2019-CoV2 was highly similar throughout the genome to RaTG13 (Fig. 1c), with an overall genome sequence identity of 96.2%.

Bats were captured from various locations in five counties of four prefectures of Yunnan Province, China, from May to July 2013.

UPD: Is RaTG13 the same as RaBtCoV/4991?

Mojiang Hani Autonomous County is an autonomous county under the jurisdiction of Pu’er City, in the south of Yunnan Province, China.


Most importantly, we report the first recorded isolation of a live SL-CoV (bat SL-CoV-WIV1) from bat faecal samples in Vero E6 cells, which has typical coronavirus morphology, 99.9% sequence identity to Rs3367 and uses ACE2 from humans, civets and Chinese horseshoe bats for cell entry. Preliminary in vitro testing indicates that WIV1 also has a broad species tropism.

Other Yunnan Strains

1999: First Chimeric Coronavirus

Using targeted RNA recombination, we constructed a mutant of the coronavirus mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) in which the ectodomain of the spike glycoprotein (S) was replaced with the highly divergent ectodomain of the S protein of feline infectious peritonitis virus. The resulting chimeric virus, designated fMHV, acquired the ability to infect feline cells and simultaneously lost the ability to infect murine cells in tissue culture.

Only a relatively few mutations in its spike protein allow the murine coronavirus to switch from a murine-restricted tropism to an extended host range by being passaged in vitro. One such virus that we studied had acquired two putative heparan sulfate-binding sites while preserving another site in the furin-cleavage motif. The adaptation of the virus through the use of heparan sulfate as an attachment/entry receptor was demonstrated by increased heparin binding as well as by inhibition of infection through treatment of cells and the virus with heparinase and heparin, respectively.

MHV/pi23, a virus obtained after 23 of the 600 passages that resulted in MHV/BHK, also contains a putative HS-binding site in the S1 domain at the same position as in MHV/BHK, albeit as a smaller insertion, while it lacks the putative HS-binding site immediately upstream of the fusion peptide. MHV/pi23 does infect nonmurine cells to some extent but much less efficiently than MHV/BHK. In addition to the multiple HS-binding sites, however, mutations found in other parts of the S protein, such as the HR1 domain and the putative fusion peptide (Fig. 1), might also contribute to the efficient entry into nonmurine cells. We are currently in the process of determining the S protein mutations that are required for the extended host range phenotype.

To better understand the species adaptability of MERS-CoV, we identified a suboptimal species-derived variant of DPP4 to study viral adaption. Passaging virus on cells expressing this DPP4 variant led to accumulation of mutations in the viral spike which increased replication.

(F) Schematic of single and double mutation emergence in MERS-CoV spike over different passages.
(G) Location of mutations within MERS-CoV spike.

Ralph “Trailblazer” Baric

A novel method was developed to assemble a full-length infectious cDNA of the group II coronavirus mouse hepatitis virus strain A59 (MHV-A59). Seven contiguous cDNA clones that spanned the 31.5-kb MHV genome were isolated. The ends of the cDNAs were engineered with unique junctions and assembled with only the adjacent cDNA subclones, resulting in an intact MHV-A59 cDNA construct of ∼31.5 kb in length. The interconnecting restriction site junctions that are located at the ends of each cDNA are systematically removed during the assembly of the complete full-length cDNA product, allowing reassembly without the introduction of nucleotide changes… The method has the potential to be used to construct viral, microbial, or eukaryotic genomes approaching several million base pairs in length and used to insert restriction sites at any given nucleotide in a microbial genome.


Using a panel of contiguous cDNAs that span the entire genome, we have assembled a full-length cDNA of the SARS-CoV Urbani strain, and have rescued molecularly cloned SARS viruses (infectious clone SARS-CoV) that contained the expected marker mutations inserted into the component clones. Recombinant viruses replicated as efficiently as WT virus and both were inhibited by treatment with the cysteine proteinase inhibitor… Availability of a SARS-CoV full-length cDNA provides a template for manipulation of the viral genome, allowing for the rapid and rational development and testing of candidate vaccines and therapeutics against this important human pathogen.


The engineering of a full-length infectious cDNA clone and a functional replicon of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) Urbani strain as bacterial artificial chromosomes (BACs) is described in this study. In this system, the viral RNA was expressed in the cell nucleus under the control of the cytomegalovirus promoter and further amplified in the cytoplasm by the viral replicase. Both the infectious clone and the replicon were fully stable in Escherichia coli.

The assembled SARS-CoV infectious cDNA clone was fully stable during its propagation in E. coli DH10B cells for more than 200 generations, considerably facilitating the genetic manipulation of the viral genome (data not shown). The detailed cloning strategy, plasmid maps, and sequences are available upon request.

Strategy to assemble a SARS-CoV infectious cDNA clone as a BAC.
(A) Genetic structure of the SARS-CoV Urbani strain genome. Relevant restriction sites used for the assembly of the full-length cDNA clone are indicated. Numbers in parentheses indicate the genomic positions of the first nucleotide of the restriction endonuclease recognition sequence. Letters and numbers indicate the viral genes. L, leader sequence; UTR, untranslated region; An, poly(A) tail. (B) Construction of pBAC-SARS-CoV 5′-3′. After the selection of appropriate restriction sites, the intermediate plasmid pBAC-SARS-CoV 5′-3′ was constructed as the backbone for assembling the infectious cDNA clone. This plasmid includes the first 681 nt of the genome under the control of the CMV promoter, a multiple-cloning site containing the restriction sites selected for the final assembly of the infectious clone, and the last 975 nt of the genome, followed by a synthetic poly(A) tail (pA), the hepatitis delta virus ribozyme (Rz), and the bovine growth hormone termination and polyadenylation sequences (BGH). All these elements were precisely joined by overlapping PCR. The CMV promoter transcription start and the ribozyme cleavage site are shown. © Schematic diagram showing the five-step cloning strategy used for the assembly of the SARS-CoV full-length cDNA clone. The five overlapping cDNA fragments, named SARS 1 to SARS 5, were sequentially cloned into the plasmid pBAC-SARS-CoV 5′-3′ to generate the plasmid pBAC-SARS-CoVFL. Relevant restriction sites are indicated. The labels are as described for panel A.

Wuhan 2007

A series of S chimeras was constructed by inserting different sequences of the SARS-CoV S into the SL-CoV S backbone.

From these results, it was deduced that the region from aa 310 to 518 of BJ01-S was necessary and sufficient to convert Rp3-S into a huACE2-binding molecule.

For introduction of the RBM of SARS-CoV S into the SL-CoV S, the coding region from aa 424 to 494 of BJ01-S was used to replace the corresponding regions of Rp3-S, resulting in a chimeric S (CS) gene designated CS424–494.


Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone. The results indicate that group 2b viruses encoding the SHC014 spike in a wild-type backbone can efficiently use multiple orthologs of the SARS receptor human angiotensin converting enzyme II (ACE2), replicate efficiently in primary human airway cells and achieve in vitro titers equivalent to epidemic strains of SARS-CoV. Additionally, in vivo experiments demonstrate replication of the chimeric virus in mouse lung with notable pathogenesis. Evaluation of available SARS-based immune-therapeutic and prophylactic modalities revealed poor efficacy; both monoclonal antibody and vaccine approaches failed to neutralize and protect from infection with CoVs using the novel spike protein. On the basis of these findings, we synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate robust viral replication both in vitro and in vivo.

(a) Schematic of the SHC014-CoV molecular clone, which was synthesized as six contiguous cDNAs (designated SHC014A, SHC014B, SHC014C, SHC014D, SHC014E and SHC014F) flanked by unique BglI sites that allowed for directed assembly of the full-length cDNA expressing open reading frames (for 1a, 1b, spike, 3, envelope, matrix, 6–8 and nucleocapsid). Underlined nucleotides represent the overhang sequences formed after restriction enzyme cleavage.

Notably, differential tropism in the lung as compared to that with SARS-MA15 and attenuation of full-length SHC014-CoV in [human epithelial airway cell] cultures relative to SARS-CoV Urbani suggest that factors beyond ACE2 binding — including spike processivity, receptor bio-availability or antagonism of the host immune responses — may contribute to emergence.

Murine SARS-2007

We adapted the SARS-CoV (Urbani strain) by serial passage in the respiratory tract of young BALB/c mice. Fifteen passages resulted in a virus (MA15) that is lethal for mice following intranasal inoculation. Lethality is preceded by rapid and high titer viral replication in lungs, viremia, and dissemination of virus to extrapulmonary sites accompanied by lymphopenia, neutrophilia, and pathological changes in the lungs. Abundant viral antigen is extensively distributed in bronchial epithelial cells and alveolar pneumocytes, and necrotic cellular debris is present in airways and alveoli, with only mild and focal pneumonitis. These observations suggest that mice infected with MA15 die from an overwhelming viral infection with extensive, virally mediated destruction of pneumocytes and ciliated epithelial cells. The MA15 virus has six coding mutations associated with adaptation and increased virulence; when introduced into a recombinant SARS-CoV, these mutations result in a highly virulent and lethal virus (rMA15), duplicating the phenotype of the biologically derived MA15 virus. Intranasal inoculation with MA15 reproduces many aspects of disease seen in severe human cases of SARS.


Here, we report the design, synthesis, and recovery of the largest synthetic replicating life form, a 29.7-kb bat severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-like coronavirus (Bat-SCoV), a likely progenitor to the SARS-CoV epidemic.

To test whether the RBDs of Bat-SCoV and SARS-CoV were interchangeable, we replaced the Bat-SCoV RBD (amino acid 323–505) with the SARS-CoV RBD (amino acid 319–518) (27, 28) (GenBank accession no. FJ211860), simulating a theoretical recombination event that might occur during mixed infection in vivo (Fig. 1B).

(B) Schematic representation showing organization of the SARS-CoV and Bat-SCoV Spike proteins. The engineered Spike proteins are pictured below with the virus name to the left. Bat-SRBD includes all of the Bat-SCoV Spike sequence except that the Bat-SCoV RBD (Bat-SCoV amino acid 323–505) is replaced with the SARS-CoV RBD (amino acid 319–518) (GenBank accession no. FJ211860). Bat-SRBD-MA includes the MA15 Spike RBD change at SARS-CoV aa Y436H. Bat-SRBM includes the minimal 13 SARS-CoV residues critical for ACE2 contact, resulting in a chimeric RBD of Bat-SCoV amino acid 323I-429T and SARS-CoV amino acid 426R-518D. Bat-Hinge is Bat-SRBM sequence, with Bat-SCoV amino acid 392L-397E replaced with SARS-CoV amino acid 388V-393D. Bat-F includes nt 1–24057 of SARS-CoV (to Spike amino acid 855), with the remaining 3′ sequence from Bat-SCoV. To the right of the schematic representations, observation of transcript activity and approximate stock titers at passage 1 (P1) are indicated. ND indicates no infectious virus detected by plaque assay.


Using the SARS-CoV infectious clone as a template (7), we designed and synthesized a full-length infectious clone of WIV1-CoV consisting of six plasmids that could be enzymatically cut, ligated together, and electroporated into cells to rescue replication competent progeny virions (Fig. S1A). In addition to the full-length clone, we also produced WIV1-CoV chimeric virus that replaced the SARS spike with the WIV1 spike within the mouse-adapted backbone (WIV1-MA15, Fig. S1B). … To confirm growth kinetics and replication, Vero cells were infected with SARS-CoV Urbani, WIV1-MA15, and WIV1-CoV.


The A59 strain of mouse hepatitis virus (MHV-A59) was used throughout the course of this study. Virus was propagated and cloned three times in the continuous murine astrocytoma cell line (DBT).

Various combinations of [temperature sensitive] mutants were mixed and inoculated onto cells at a multiplicity of infection of 10 each.


Using the reverse genetics technique we previously developed for WIV1 [23], we constructed a group of infectious bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) clones with the backbone of WIV1 and variants of S genes from 8 different bat SARSr-CoVs. Only the infectious clones for Rs4231 and Rs7327 led to cytopathic effects in Vero E6 cells after transfection (S7 Fig). The other six strains with deletions in the RBD region, Rf4075, Rs4081, Rs4085, Rs4235, As6526 and Rp3 (S1 Fig) failed to be rescued, as no cytopathic effects was observed and viral replication cannot be detected by immunofluorescence assay in Vero E6 cells (S7 Fig). In contrast, when Vero E6 cells were respectively infected with the two successfully rescued chimeric SARSr-CoVs, WIV1-Rs4231S and WIV1-Rs7327S, and the newly isolated Rs4874, efficient virus replication was detected in all infections (Fig 7).

Similarity plot based on the full-length genome sequence of civet SARS CoV SZ3.
Full-length genome sequences of all SARSr-CoV detected in bats from the cave investigated in this study were used as reference sequences. The analysis was performed with the Kimura model, a window size of 1500 base pairs and a step size of 150 base pairs.

To assess whether the three novel SARSr-CoVs can use human ACE2 as a cellular entry receptor, we conducted virus infectivity studies using HeLa cells with or without the expression of human ACE2. All viruses replicated efficiently in the human ACE2-expressing cells. The results were further confirmed by quantification of viral RNA using real-time RT-PCR (Fig 8).


Together, these results demonstrate that protease cleavage is also the primary barrier to infection of Vero cells with HKU5-CoV. Examining further, we compared the predicted cleavage at S1/S2 border, S2’, and the endosomal cysteine protease site across MERS, PDF2180, and HKU5 spikes (Fig. 6D) (26). For the S1/S2 site, MERS, Uganda, and HKU5 maintain the RXXR cleavage motif, although the different interior amino acids may alter efficiency. For the S2’ sequence, MERS and HKU5 also retain the RXXR motif; however, the Uganda spike lacks the first arginine (SNAR), potentially impacting cleavage.

Gain-of-Function: Risky Business

In addition to offering preparation against future emerging viruses, this approach must be considered in the context of the US government–mandated pause on gain-of-function (GOF) studies. On the basis of previous models of emergence (Fig. 4a,b), the creation of chimeric viruses such as SHC014-MA15 was not expected to increase pathogenicity. Although SHC014-MA15 is attenuated relative to its parental mouse-adapted SARS-CoV, similar studies examining the pathogenicity of CoVs with the wild-type Urbani spike within the MA15 backbone showed no weight loss in mice and reduced viral replication. Thus, relative to the Urbani spike–MA15 CoV, SHC014-MA15 shows a gain in pathogenesis (Fig. 1). On the basis of these findings, scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue, as increased pathogenicity in mammalian models cannot be excluded. Coupled with restrictions on mouse-adapted strains and the development of monoclonal antibodies using escape mutants, research into CoV emergence and therapeutic efficacy may be severely limited moving forward. Together, these data and restrictions represent a crossroads of GOF research concerns; the potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens. In developing policies moving forward, it is important to consider the value of the data generated by these studies and whether these types of chimeric virus studies warrant further investigation versus the inherent risks involved.

Future plans include studying the pathogen that causes SARS, which also doesn’t require a BSL-4 lab, before moving on to Ebola and the West African Lassa virus, which do. Some one million Chinese people work in Africa; the country needs to be ready for any eventuality, says Yuan. “Viruses don’t know borders.”

The plan to expand into a network heightens such concerns. One BSL-4 lab in Harbin is already awaiting accreditation; the next two are expected to be in Beijing and Kunming, the latter focused on using monkey models to study disease.

Lina says that China’s size justifies this scale, and that the opportunity to combine BSL-4 research with an abundance of research monkeys — Chinese researchers face less red tape than those in the West when it comes to research on primates — could be powerful. “If you want to test vaccines or antivirals, you need a non-human primate model,” says Lina.

But Ebright is not convinced of the need for more than one BSL-4 lab in mainland China. He suspects that the expansion there is a reaction to the networks in the United States and Europe, which he says are also unwarranted. He adds that governments will assume that such excess capacity is for the potential development of bioweapons.

“These facilities are inherently dual use,” he says. The prospect of ramping up opportunities to inject monkeys with pathogens also worries, rather than excites, him: “They can run, they can scratch, they can bite.”

Trevan says China’s investment in a BSL-4 lab may, above all, be a way to prove to the world that the nation is competitive. “It is a big status symbol in biology,” he says, “whether it’s a need or not.”

However, further testing in nonhuman primates is required to translate these finding into pathogenic potential in humans. Importantly, the failure of available therapeutics defines a critical need for further study and for the development of treatments. With this knowledge, surveillance programs, diagnostic reagents and effective treatments can be produced that are protective against the emergence of group 2b–specific CoVs, such as SHC014, and these can be applied to other CoV branches that maintain similarly heterogeneous pools.

Beware of Lab

Only one scientist worked with the virus, and Reyes said the lab suspects that scientist accidentally threw the vial away in November.

Galveston biolab requires the most stringent safety measures because it studies biosafetly level BSL-4 materials, or dangerous infectious diseases that have no vaccines or cures. BSL-4 materials include Guanarito, Ebola and smallpox.

Human influenza H1N1 viruses appeared with the 1918 pandemic, and persisted, slowing accumulating small changes in its genome (with a major change in 1947), until the H2N2 “Asian” flu appeared in 1957, causing a worldwide pandemic. H1N1 influenza virus then apparently became extinct, and was not isolated for 20 years. In 1969 the “Hong Kong” H3N2 virus replaced the H2N2 virus, and is still circulating.

In September 1977 an H1N1 influenza virus was isolated from human infections in the Far East region of the Soviet Union, and in early 1978 the Chinese reported they had isolated H1N1 virus in May of 1977 in northeast China adjacent to the Soviet outbreak. Using the early genetic tools available at the time, the 1977 H1N1 virus was found to be closely related to H1N1 human influenza viruses circulating in 1949–1950, but not to those circulating earlier or later.

Only since 2009–2010 did major papers begin to state directly the 1977 emergence of H1N1 influenza was a laboratory related release: “The most famous case of a released laboratory strain is the re-emergent H1N1 influenza A virus which was first observed in China in May of 1977 and in Russia shortly thereafter.”

The speculation that the 1977 release may have been related to H1N1 vaccine research is supported by the observation that in the initial outbreaks in China, nine of the ten viral isolates expressed “temperature sensitivity” (Kung 1978). Temperature sensitivity normally an uncommon trait, but one that was in the 1970s (and still is) a fundamental trait for making live attenuated influenza vaccines. Temperature sensitivity generally occurs only after a series of substantial laboratory manipulations and selections.

Interestingly, further investigation indicated the circulating strains in 1977–78 were often comprised of mixed temperature-sensitive and normal components, and that temperature sensitivity apparently disappeared from the post-1978 H1N1 lineage rapidly. Escape of a mid-protocol population of H1N1 virus undergoing laboratory selection for temperature sensitive mutants would provide such a mixed population. In 1976–77 laboratory personnel in their late teens or early 20s would not have been exposed to pre-1957 H1N1 influenza viruses, and been susceptible to laboratory infections. The low severity of the 1977 pandemic might be in part due to the temperature sensitivity of the virus, a trait that limits virus replication in pulmonary tissues.

Sources familiar with the cables said they were meant to sound an alarm about the grave safety concerns at the WIV lab, especially regarding its work with bat coronaviruses. The embassy officials were calling for more U.S. attention to this lab and more support for it, to help it fix its problems.

“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” states the Jan. 19, 2018, cable, which was drafted by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists. (The State Department declined to comment on this and other details of the story.)

Possible Hallmarks of Lab Origin?

Schematic representation of SARS-CoV and Bat-SCoV variants.
(A) Schematic representation of SARS-CoV and Bat-SCoV (GenBank accession no. FJ211859) genomes and reverse genetics system. (Top) Arrowheads indicate nsp processing sites within the ORF1ab polyprotein (open arrowheads, papain-like proteinase mediated; filled arrowheads, nsp5 [3C-like proteinase] mediated). Immediately below are the fragments used in the reverse genetics system, labeled A through F. The fragments synthesized to generate Bat-SCoV exactly recapitulate the fragment junctions of SARS-CoV with the exception that the Bat-SCoV has 2 fragments, Bat-E1 and Bat-E2, which correspond to the SARS-E fragment.

Viruses containing PCR-generated insertions within the viral coding sequence were produced by using the SARS-CoV assembly strategy (24, 33, 53) with the following modifications. Briefly, for Bat-F virus, full-length cDNA was constructed by ligating restriction products from SARS-CoV fragments A–E and Bat-SCoV fragment F, which required a BglI-NotI digestion. For Bat-SCoV and Bat-SRBD, Bat-SRBM, and Bat-Hinge, plasmids containing the 7 cDNA fragments of the Bat-SCoV genome were digested by using BglI for Bat-A, Bat-B, Bat-C, and Bat-D, BglI and AflII for Bat-E1 and Bat-E2, and BglI and NotI for Bat-F. Digested, gel-purified fragments were simultaneously ligated together. Transcription was driven by using a T7 mMessage mMachine kit (Ambion), and RNA was electroporated into Vero cells (24, 53).

The interconnecting restriction site junctions that are located at the ends of each cDNA are systematically removed during the assembly of the complete full-length cDNA product, allowing reassembly without the introduction of nucleotide changes.

To rapidly assemble consensus clones, we used class IIS restriction endonucleases that cut at asymmetric sites and leave asymmetric ends. These enzymes generate strand-specific unique overhangs that allow the seamless ligation of two cDNAs with the concomitant loss of the restriction site.

2.2. Generation of Recombinant Virus
Recombinant rYN-S2/RRKR virus containing an S protein with the furin-S2′ site was generated by vaccinia recombination, as described previously [20,28]. Briefly, plasmid with the furin-S2′ site was generated using the Seamless Assembly kit (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA, USA) and transfected into CV-1 cells infected by vaccinia virus containing the genome of YN-ΔS-GPT. Furin-S2’ site was introduced into the YN cDNA by homologous recombination using the transient dominant selection system [25].

The GeneArt® Seamless Cloning and Assembly Kit enables the simultaneous and directional cloning of 1 to 4 PCR fragments, consisting of any sequence, into any linearized vector, in a single 30-minute room temperature reaction. The kit contains everything required for the assembly of DNA fragments, and their transformation into E. coli for selection and growth of recombinant vectors.

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Codon Preferences

The Nature Paper vs. the Lab-Made Hypothesis

While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.

Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.

The acquisition of both the polybasic cleavage site and predicted O-linked glycans also argues against culture-based scenarios. New polybasic cleavage sites have been observed only after prolonged passage of low-pathogenicity avian influenza virus in vitro or in vivo. Furthermore, a hypothetical generation of SARS-CoV-2 by cell culture or animal passage would have required prior isolation of a progenitor virus with very high genetic similarity, which has not been described. Subsequent generation of a polybasic cleavage site would have then required repeated passage in cell culture or animals with ACE2 receptors similar to those of humans, but such work has also not previously been described.

The human innate and adaptive immune system of BLT-L mice
We generated an in vivo model with human lung implants and an autologous human immune system by constructing BLT mice with autologous human lung implants (BLT-L humanized mice).

On the 4% Genome Difference between RaTG13 and Cov2

We obtained an estimate of the spontaneous mutation rate of ca. 10⁻⁴ substitutions per site or lower, a value within the typically accepted range for RNA viruses. A roughly threefold increase in mutation rate and a significant shift in mutation spectrum were observed in samples from patients undergoing 6 months of interferon plus ribavirin treatment. This result is consistent with the known in vitro mutagenic effect of ribavirin and suggests that the antiviral effect of ribavirin plus interferon treatment is at least partly exerted through lethal mutagenesis.

Shi Zhengli-2020

In this study, we have shown that SARS-CoV-2 exhibits much higher capacity of membrane fusion than SARS-CoV, suggesting that the fusion machinery of SARS-CoV-2 is an important target for development of coronavirus fusion inhibitors.

Generally, β-B coronaviruses lack the S1/S2 furin-recognition site, and their S proteins are uncleaved in the native state. For example, SARS-CoV enters into the cell mainly via the endosomal membrane fusion pathway where its S protein is cleaved by endosomal cathepsin L and activated. Inducing the S1/S2 furin-recognition site could significantly increase the capacity of SARS-CoV S protein to mediate cellular membrane surface infection.

This is the End, Beautiful Friend

What is the reservoir species of SARS-CoV-2?
They have not identified the actual reservoir species. Reports show that pangolins are potentially the intermediate host, but pangolin viruses are 88–98% identical to SARS-CoV-2. In comparison, civet and racoon dog strains of SARS coronaviruses were 99.8% identical to SARS-CoV from 2003. In other words, we are talking about a handful of mutations between civet strains, racoon dog strains and human strains in 2003. Pangolins [strains of CoV2] have over 3000 nucleotide changes, no way they are the reservoir species. Absolutely no chance.

How I Learned to Hate the GOF

Preventing death is my life’s mission. I am a drug developer currently working on a rejuvenating gene therapy using the approach of partial reprogramming.

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