Artificial virus stimulation/fabrication, what is our current state?

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I've been thinking about this but now especially with regards to Covid-19 there are alot of theories out there starting from absolute fringe and lunacy to somewhat scientific and even ones with sources to academia.

For starters not to get too long my question is,
What is our current known capability with regards to artificially changing or maybe even making viruses? I'll admit I don't know that much about it but I do want to know some trustworthy info regarding this subject.

In other words , do we posses the capability to artificially produce a virus and make it with certain properties resulting in specific symptoms etc, or do we posses the capability to take a natural virus and "tune it" up a notch or change it, or do we posses no such capability at all and can merely trace a virus, try finding it's root and then store it or use it as a bioweapon if we want to?
 

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  • #2
jim mcnamara
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What you are talking about is, in part, about weaponizing viruses. As long as we stay out of the political aspect of this, the topic probably will be okay for PF.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_warfare -- see Bunyaviridae - Rift Valley Fever

Go to the bottom of the article and follow some of them for details. Please note: specific research on weapons development is usually NOT accessible. By virtually everyone.
 
  • #3
TeethWhitener
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We can certainly change existing viruses. It's a prominent topic in gene therapy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viral_vector#Hybrids
Viruses are really good at inserting foreign DNA/RNA into cells, and combining advantageous properties from different viruses is one way to optimize this process for introducing new genes into cells.

Building a virus from scratch, on the other hand, is not something we know how to do--especially if we have a particular functionality in mind. Heck, even building a single protein from scratch to perform a particular function is extraordinarily difficult. It's actually easier to propagate an existing protein in vivo that kind of does what we want, and then guide its evolution until we re-optimize it to do what we want really well. This is what Frances Arnold won her Nobel Prize for.
 
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Laroxe
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We can certainly alter virus's but most countries with expertise in this area claim they no longer try to develop new pathogens, the only work on defensive measures. It is even possible that this is true, given the history of biological weapons, their unpredictability, the lack of control and the difficulties in using one operationally. Of course it doesn't matter as one line of research which aims to identify potential pandemic pathogens often changes a virus to model the changes in pathogenicity, they are currently trying to recreate the virus responsible for the 1918 flu pandemic. Its a very worrying type of research, but it pales into insignificance when we consider some of the things we are learning about viruses in nature.
The great majority of viruses remain unclassified, we basically live in a cloud of them and they have at their disposal a number of ways that they can use to both alter their own capabilities and alter the capabilities of their hosts. They use these capabilities on a massive scale, luckily most of the changes are irrelevant to us, but on a global scale across species there are usually several pandemics going on at any one time.
Of course the fact that traits that become dominant can now be traced, we now have the ability to track the evolutionary history of a virus and identify changes, when they occurred, in what species, how it spread and what effect the changes had on the virus. Its this sort of technology that makes it possible to identify genetic manipulation by humans and why they are now confident that Coronavirus MERS 2 is natural.
To add to our problems, its now believed that at least some virus's are capable of communication and altering their behaviour based on various chemical signals.
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01880-6
 
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Ygggdrasil
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It is possible to recreate existing viruses from scratch. For example, it is possible for one to download the genetic sequence of a virus, synthesize the corresponding DNA, and introduce the genetic material into an appropriate system for the viruses to self-assemble (see posts in this previous thread for more discussion). Laboratory synthesis of a virus was first reported in 2002, and the technology was recently used to resurrect an extinct virus: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/201...-extinct-poxvirus-100000-using-mail-order-dna

It is possible to try to evolve new properties in existing viruses through directed evolution methods (as mentioned by @TeethWhitener). This gain of function research on human pathogens is controversial and highly regulated.

Designing a new virus from scratch or modifying an existing virus to substantially change its properties would likely be very difficult and is not something that (to the best of my knowledge) has been reported in the scientific literature.

However, in terms of biological weapons/bioterrorism, it would not seem so necessary to make new deadly viruses when one could simply re-create the smallpox virus in a lab. From the Science magazine article cited above:

Eradicating smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in history, took humanity decades and cost billions of dollars. Bringing the scourge back would probably take a small scientific team with little specialized knowledge half a year and cost about $100,000.
 
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Laroxe
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My comments about the use of bioweapons was based really on their effectiveness. using a virus like smallpox would require a dispersal system that would cause multiple outbreaks (blankets wouldn't hack it any more) this would be complicated by a large pool of people likely to have some immunity, anyone born before the early 70's in fact. The fact that the spread couldn't be controlled would mean the aggressor would need to begin a mass vaccination program before its release, this would be noticed and reacted to, the source would also be identified very quickly and face retaliation with far more deadly weapons.
Of course there are some groups that would be quite willing to commit suicide, but this would need to include the leaders rather than a few dupes. Some people have attempted to use Anthrax as a terror weapon, its ability to make spores make it resilient and persistent. It was used in 2001, when 11 separate attacks using spores killed 5 people and infected 17 others. The organism was stolen from a biodefence facility by a scientist trying to protect his grant money, the suspect eventually killed themselves. Following the attacks it took around a month to sequence the organism, it was 2001-2, the identified when the organism was grown, which lab it had been created in and even the number of the culture flask.
While the clean up was expensive, this episode illustrated many of the problems of bioweapons, anthrax is one of the favourite agents to weaponise but its difficult to persuade it to spread, its easier to control but does very little damage. Even with smallpox the containment techniques are well known and vaccines are already available, the first cases would trigger a massive response and the groups that might try to use such weapons would be the ones least likely to be able respond adequately. Just a thought really, but their use doesn't really make much sense.
 
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Unless ofcourse we come to the point where one is able to either severely modify or create a new virus all together which cannot be traced to anywhere and given today's mass transit system (maybe not currently but on overall) I'd say if a virus has a high robustness and infection rate it can spread like wildfire.

Even without being a biology expert I'm pretty sure from what I know that it's just a matter of time we crack the "know how" to create artificial viruses don't you think?
 

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