A new report from National Geographic indicates that scientists are now working on "self-spreading vaccines" that can jump from vaccinated to unvaccinated populations.
The article indicates that these "new vaccines or so-called recombinant viruses" are developed through a process whereby researchers "first identify a protein from the target microbe that serves as an antigen—a substance that triggers immune responses in vaccinated people or animals."
Researchers then "select a virus to carry the vaccine and spread it."
This is achieved by capturing "a few animals from their target population—primates for Ebola, rats for Lassa fever," etc. — and isolating a virus that naturally infects those animals. Then researchers splice in genetic material from the "target to create a vaccine."
While the article did not mention gain of function research, according to Columbia University researcher Dr. Vincent Racaniello who was not mentioned in the National Geographic article, "another way to do [Gain of Function] research is to use recombinant DNA technology to engineer changes in the genome of the organism. In experiments done in my laboratory, we took a small piece of the genome of the mouse-adapted Lansing strain of poliovirus – coding for just eight amino acids – and spliced it into the genome of another poliovirus that is unable to infect mice. The recombinant virus from this experiment had a new property – the ability to infect mice. This experiment would also be classified as GoF."
The National Geographic article indicates that the emerging technology uses cytomegalovirus (CMV), which comes from a group of viruses belonging to the herpes family. These viruses stay in their host for life.
Considerably, the ethical implications of inoculating a population without expressed consent would be a breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention, which states that "mutilation and medical or scientific experiments not necessitated by the medical treatment of a protected person" are prohibited.
"Once you set something engineered and self-transmissible out into nature," Jonas Sandbrink, a biosecurity researcher at the University of Oxford, warned, "you don't know what happens to it and where it will go."
"Even if you just start by setting it out into animal populations, part of the genetic elements might find their way back into humans."
Despite the ethical objections to a self-spreading vaccine, renewed interest in the technology resurfaced in 2016. Currently, experiments are underway on developing a Lassa virus vaccine using the technology, but due to the "extremely high-risk and international nature of this work" and the "potentially irreversible" consequences, the research, if used in the human population, would be illegal. However, there's still the chance of an animal to human jump using the technology.
"We can't even get people to take a vaccine in a global pandemic. The idea that you would be able to surreptitiously vaccinate the population with a virus without causing riots is just, you know, it's stuff of fantasy. It will never be used in humans," Alec Redwood, a principal research fellow at the University of Western Australia, insisted.
However, Redwood maintains that the technology should still be pursued for human use "if we need it."
"You don't need to be a Rhodes scholar to work out that people will be nervous about a disseminating viral vector. It's a concept that will scare people," Redwood adds.
"The way that I like to think about it is that it may never be used, but it's better to have something in the cupboard that can be used and is mature if we need it. And to say, 'Let's just not do this research because it's too dangerous,' to me, that makes no sense at all," he added.
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