Swiss Scientists Have Recreated the Coronavirus in a Lab
A synthetic virus could help develop drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests but could also be used as a bioweapon
As countries scramble to contain the novel coronavirus spreading around the world, scientists in Switzerland are intentionally making more of the deadly virus. The only difference is that their version is synthetic.
Behind the doors of a high-security laboratory in a tiny Swiss village, researchers at the University of Bern recreated the coronavirus, formally known as SARS-CoV-2, in just a week using yeast, a published genome, and mail-order DNA. The synthetic virus, which they detail in a new paper posted to the preprint server biorXiv, could help more labs develop drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests for the coronavirus. But the ability to quickly make a virus from scratch also raises concerns that the process could be used to make biological weapons.
Scientists typically study a virus by isolating it from a sick patient’s cells and growing it in a lab dish. But researchers have struggled to get their hands on the coronavirus. When an outbreak of a disease happens far away, it can take months for labs to get access to physical samples.
In these situations, researchers might turn to a synthetic version of a virus, also known as an infectious clone, so they can start studying it sooner. Creating a synthetic version can be a more practical option than ordering a dangerous virus through the mail, and it allows researchers to sidestep a lot of regulatory hoops. There are import rules and special permits involved in shipping and acquiring pathogens.
“Collectively, all those things can take a tremendous amount of time,” says David Evans, a virologist at the University of Alberta whose team raised alarm in 2017 for making a synthetic version of the extinct horsepox virus, a relative of the smallpox virus. “If you want to start working with the virus as quickly as possible, it’s sometimes faster and simpler just to make it yourself.”
To make a virus, you need instructions on how to assemble it. On January 10, a Chinese group provided a blueprint of the virus to scientists around the world by publishing a draft of the…