A potential discovery of highly fatal SARS coronavirus?

Has a highly fatal SARS coronavirus already been discovered? Maybe yes, but just its report is highly concerning. On January 4, 2024, a letter to the editor was uploaded to a preprint server which gave too few details but described a 100 percent fatal virus in genetically modified mice. The modifications made these mice similar to humans by adding a human ACE2 receptor to their cells, including in the heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys. The results were 100 percent fatal, which I am assuming is without any medical treatment.

The only positive aspect of the report is that a 100 percent fatal virus may not spread asymptomatically. Similar to Ebola, the virus may also cause fewer societal deaths than COVID-19 since the public is more likely to adhere to public health advice, which decreases transmissibility.

The new report has been widely circulated in “mainstream” right-wing media and mentioned by Senator Marshall in the Senate HELP Committee regarding long COVID. A preprint of the study can be downloaded from medIVrx.

Snoops described the media reports as misleading that the virus was not shown to be 100 percent fatal in humans, only mice, and that it was “a bit unfair” to assert that researchers “created” the virus.

However, one can “create” a virus by either printing out a researcher-defined genetic code or by progressively passing viruses through cell cultures, selecting the most lethal ones, and then repeating the process. The latter technique uses natural selection, and right-wing media is worried about this process.

The genetic code of the virus was not published in the report, and as Michael Specter of STAT news warned, “It is not wise to do so.” Bad actors could use this information to spread a deadly virus throughout the world.

However, the code must be shared with other scientists and nations, both to verify the results and to make a vaccine to help mitigate the damage of an accidental or purposeful release. The preprint submission states that all data will become available with the supporting information or “from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.”

Presently, the United States’ relationship with China is at rock bottom. Thus, the uploading of this preprint heightens concern and paranoia, which are unlikely to be relieved until the virus’s genetic sequence is analyzed.

We must remember that the research in the preprint has not been verified, and research in mice does not always translate to humans. However, using humanized mice makes it more likely to do so.

Prestigious Chinese institutions funded the research, including the NSFC-MFST project (China-Mongolia), the National Key R&D Program of China, and the Biosafety Special Program. Hence, it is unlikely that this preprint is among the hundreds of thousands of fake research papers that have infiltrated the scientific literature.

Upon reading this article, two possibilities come to mind. One is that the report may be part of a psychological campaign aimed at undermining the resolve of the United States, possibly as a prelude to an invasion of Taiwan. The other possibility is that the researchers have stumbled upon a highly dangerous virus and wish to alert the world about it.

Regardless of the true intentions behind the report, it’s difficult to ascertain. However, what remains evident is the diverse reactions it elicits. On one hand, there are those who downplay the severity of COVID-19, casually going about without masks and even discussing the dismissal of public health officials. On the other hand, some individuals, including liberals, are adamant about the pandemic’s end and dismiss the lab leak theory as baseless right-wing propaganda.

It’s time for a reality check. We must take this recent preprint seriously, and our government needs to take proactive measures to prepare for future pandemics. This entails implementing strategies such as source control through improved ventilation systems and the utilization of N95 masks or respirators. While considerable efforts have been made to emphasize individual responsibility in combating pandemics, the reality is that collective action led by public health authorities is indispensable. Relying solely on individual actions will not suffice to safeguard against future threats posed by dangerous pathogens.

Kevin T. Kavanagh is an otolaryngologist.

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