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Sci Tech    H4'ed 9/3/20

The Age of Synthetic Biology: Start the War Games!

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by John Kendall Hawkins

Eight years of research on H5N1 had convinced him that this cunning little Darwinian demon was capable of ecocide-the wiping out of entire species.

- Kennedy Shortridge, microbiologist, University of Hong Kong

It was bad enough when, beginning in March, US President Donald J. Trump repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as "the Chinese virus" in speeches, insulting Asian-Americans, and stirring up xenophobic remembrances of Yellow Perils Past, backpedaling and vacillating over his semiotic intentions, but then he left less doubt when he began to infer that China had let the spread of the virus happen "for whatever reason," and began locating the epicenter of the outbreak, not with pangolins at the Wuhan wet market, which the MSM was initially feeding news consumers, but up the road at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), site of pandemic studies, where research was being conducted on Coronavirus-laden bats. Problem is, as with Trump's many assertions of "fake news" reports, there's some truth; there's some plausibility regarding the laboratory origins of the virus. If only he weren't the messenger.

In late April, Newsweek featured a piece, "The Controversial Experiments and Wuhan Lab Suspected of Starting the Coronavirus Pandemic," that gave potential credence to our conspiracy-minded president's words. The article explained that the lab had been working with bats and coronaviruses, and that, according to cables back to Washington, there was serious concern regarding safety at the lab. The article strongly implied that the lab was the source of our pandemic, but left open the question as to whether the virus was natural or synthetic. How it got out of the lab is still an open question. (Note: More recently, scientists have indicated that the Covid-19 spikes that latch on to us show no signs of synthetic manufacture.)

In turn, suspicion of the doings at WIV appear to have arisen out of concerns that the Chinese state-run lab was conducting so-called Gain-of-Function experiments. Such studies were first brought to the public's attention in a controversial Nature article, "Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research," in which chimeras are created during "lab research that increases the virulence, ease of spread or host range of dangerous pathogens." Such research has been deeply criticized by Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who sees it as too dangerous for the benefits expected. In the Nature piece, Wain-Hobson says, "If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory." The US had suspended such research in October 2014.

But in an extraordinary bout of underreporting of public interest information, the moratorium was lifted in 2019, under President Trump, and the dangerous Gain-of-Function work began again. The Science article laments the opacity and lack of accountability of such research, and cites

critics of the work worried that such a souped-up virus could spark a pandemic if it escaped from a lab or was intentionally released by a bioterrorist.

It may very well be that such an escape happened at WIV late last year. Citing "a series of accidents at federal biocontainment labs" as a reason for the US moratorium, it's entirely possible that such safety issues occurred at WIV as well - as reported by US embassy officials last year. It's unknown precisely who the officials were, or why they were allowed to visit -- "several times" -- a Chinese state-run facility.

In any case, the Nature article, the embassy cables, the determination of WIV as the likely site of the novel Coronavirus eruption, and President Trump's dangerous rhetoric has led to some serious conspiracy theories going viral, including one that suggests that the virus was manufactured, and, what's more, as a bioweapon -- one nut-job lot has gone so far as to sue the Chinese at the ICC with this charge. Trump, in his inimitable style, has softly stoked such fears and conjectures for his own political gain.

On the other hand, in general, there are things that the Chinese do that are alarming in the West, not only the plausibility that they were dabbling in bat shit to coax out the viral hombres at WIV, but also, though 'morally' unacceptable elsewhere in the world, a Chinese doctor was the first to have cloned humans (that we know of) and 'accidentally' enhanced the brain of embryos. Writes Antonio Regalado for MIT Tech Review,

News of the first gene-edited babies also inflamed speculation about whether CRISPR technology could one day be used to create super-intelligent humans, perhaps as part of a biotechnology race between the US and China.

As with an arms war, the stakes are too high to allow the 'enemy competitor' to corner the market on Rosemary Babies.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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