Fighting the coronavirus outbreak with genetic sequencing, CRISPR and synthetic biology

| March 10, 2020
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Chinese workers manufacture the nucleic acid detection agent for the new coronavirus at the plant of Jiangsu Bioperfectus Technologies Co., Ltd. in Taizhou City Credit: PA
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

The rapid and frightening spread of the coronavirus has sparked a battle that’s drawing on a host of emerging technologies. Government, industry and academic researchers are scrambling to improve our ability to diagnose, treat and contain a virus that’s threatening to reach pandemic status.

This isn’t the first time researchers have faced off against a dangerous member of this family of viruses. But it is the first time they’ve done it with a toolbox that includes the gene-editing tool CRISPR and the emerging field of synthetic biology.

Indeed, we’ve known about coronaviruses for nearly 60 years. But for several decades, they attracted little attention, causing symptoms similar to the common cold.

That changed in 2003, when a deadly member of the coronavirus family, SARS-COV, spread to 29 countries, killing 774 people. Suddenly, a coronavirus found previously in animals had managed to jump to humans, where it killed nearly 10 percent of those infected. The virus sparked fear across the globe, but was brought under control within a year. Only a small number of cases have been reported since 2004.

Then in 2012 came MERS-COV.  The virus emerged in Saudi Arabia, jumping from camels to humans. The virus has never caused a sustained outbreak, but with a mortality rate of 35 percent, it has killed 858 people so far. Infections have been reported in 27 countries, with most in the Middle East. The virus is considered by the World Health Organization to be a potential epidemic threat.

Interestingly, neither of these previous coronavirus threats were stopped by a cure or a vaccine. MERS still lurks in the background, while SARS was contained by what amounts to old-school practices, according to a 2007 article in Harvard Magazine:

Ironically, in this age of high-tech medicine, the virus was eventually brought under control by public-health measures typically associated with the nineteenth century—isolation of SARS patients themselves and quarantine of all their known and suspected contacts—rather than a vaccine.

Is a cure on the way?

There currently is no cure for this new wave of coronavirus infections (the resulting disease is called Covid-19), even though some antiviral therapies are being tested — and one experimental vaccine is ready for testing in humans. The virus genome has been sequenced and its genetic code may shed light on how the disease starts and spreads, as well as inform on potential pharmaceutical targets for drug development. The Covid-19 virus similarity to the SARS-COV may mean that cures developed for one strain may prove effective for the other. The Canadian company AbCellera plans to test its antibody technology, already tried against MERS-COV, to neutralize the Covid-19 viral bodies.

What is really encouraging is the level of international collaboration aimed to fight this health emergency. Funding bodies, scientific societies and scientific journals have signed a joint statement, agreeing to openly share research findings with the global research community as soon as they are available.  The very quick information dissemination gave scientists around the globe several RNA sequences of the virus genome. And these sequences can be used to better understand the epidemiology and origins of the virus. Moreover, the advancements in DNA technology let research groups in academia and industry synthesize the viral genetic material to use in the two areas of focus: detection of virus and vaccine development.

Early Detection

One of the trickiest things about the coronavirus is its speculated transmission by asymptomatic patients. This increases the number of infections and makes containment measures less effective, spreading fears that the virus may establish a permanent presence in some areas. There are also fears that many incidents lie undetected, spreading the virus under the radar. As of March 9, the virus has infected more than 110,000 people, killing nearly 4,000, in 97 countries.

Several biotech companies have scrambled to provide kits and resources for early and reliable detection of the new coronavirus. Mammoth Bioscience, a San Francisco-based startup, is already working on a detection assay using their CRISPR technology. The DNA technology companies IDT and Genscript already distribute PCR-based kits for detection for research purposes. The Chinese companies BGI and Liferiver Biotech use the same PCR technology for the kits they provide to their countries health authorities.

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The French-British biotech Novacyt announced the launch of a diagnostic kit for clinical use in middle February. The kit will also use quantitative-PCR, developed by their sister company Primerdesign. Its high specificity will reduce the analysis time to less than two hours. The company’s CEO Graham Mullis told Reuters that each kit will cost around $6.50, and that they have already received more than 33,000 orders.

Vaccination to halt the disease from spreading

The only way to effectively control and even eliminate the outbreak is to develop a vaccine. Unfortunately, the new outbreak hasn’t attracted the attention of the lead vaccine manufacturers. Non-profit organizations, such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), have jumped in to fill the gap. But despite the emergency, a vaccine may be several years away from being available

The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, announced that they’re working on a coronavirus vaccine which they hope to have ready within the next few months. The “molecular clamp” approach the Australian researchers have developed is designed to boost the immune system response and work against several viral infections. GlaxoSmithKline has offered its adjuvant technology – adjuvants are added to vaccines to boost their efficiency – to speed up the process.

The Cambridge, MA-based Moderna uses a different approach to make vaccines. Their mRNA technology is modular and very adaptable to use for a new disease or when the epitope (the vaccine’s target) mutates. The company says its vaccine is ready for human trials.

Situation is concerning, but humanity is not at risk

The Covid-19 outbreak has rightly gained the attention of health authorities and the media. If the virus were to reach countries with weaker healthcare systems than China’s, the number of deaths will rise significantly and containment will be even harder. Moreover, the long incubation time of the disease, combined with the asymptomatic spread, make quarantine and isolation measures less effective. The biggest risk is for the new coronavirus to become endemic in certain areas, where the disease is never truly extinct and displays seasonal outbreaks. We don’t want the Covid-19 to become a new flu.

The health authorities of 2020, the biotech industry, and the society in general are better prepared for a coronavirus outbreak than a few years ago. The situation is less risky than MERS and SARS, though the new virus is harder to contain. This outbreak offers a chance for everyone to become more aware of viral infections, the appropriate precautions and get vaccinated according to the official recommendations. And keep in mind that the best way to stay informed is through official sources, such as the WHO and the CDC.

As for the biotech industry, are they playing their part? The answer is a partial yes; there are several companies that immediately scrambled to help the situation. But the big players within the field could be doing more.

Kostas Vavitsas, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Athens, Greece. He is also a steering committee member of EUSynBioS. Follow him on Twitter @konvavitsas

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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