Scientists Engineered a Vaccine-Ready, Less-Deadly Form of MERS

Not all viral engineering has to be controversial.

Sep 10 2013, 4:50pm
The "coronavirus" gets its name because of the halos, or coronas, surrounding them. Photo: CDC

Scientists are genetically engineering deadly viruses again. But this time, you won't see censorship from major health organizations around the world. 

Tuesday, Spanish researchers from Madrid's National Center for Biotechnology published a paper announcing they've reengineered the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) to be more suitable as a vaccine candidate. 

Viral engineering—at least in the case of deadly viruses such at H5N1 flu—has been a contentious topic over the past two years.

In late 2011, two separate groups of researchers, one at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and one at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, published papers detailing how to take the highly deadly bird flu virus and make it transmissible between mammals. With a mortality rate much higher than that of previous outbreaks of H1N1 and seasonal flu viruses, human-to-human transmission is widely believed to be the only thing standing between us and a massive, deadly pandemic.

The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that certain portions of those papers be published only in redacted form, which led to a worldwide discussion on biosecurity and censorship. A few months later, the World Health Organization rounded up a group of flu experts and decided to create a temporary moratorium on laboratory-modified H5N1 research (it has since been lifted). 

Scientists are split on so-called "gain of function" research. The thinking goes that by making a virus more deadly, transmissible, or just different than they occur in nature, they can learn more about it and be prepared when there's an outbreak. 

In an op-ed in Nature earlier this year, HIV researcher Simon Wain-Hobson wrote that "influenza virologists are going down a blind alley and the powers that be are blindly letting them go down that alley, which is tantamount to acquiescing. So let's be clear: the end game could be viruses more dangerous than the Spanish flu strain."

Some of that logic might go towards explaining why similar research hasn't yet been published on MERS, though it's been proposed.

MERS is already dangerous: WHO has called it a "threat to the entire world." The virus was first reported last year and has been called "SARS-like" because it causes severe cough and respiratory problems. It's killed more than 50 people so far, mostly in the Middle East. In the last few days, it has killed three people in Saudi Arabia and another in Qatar.

But instead of focusing on making it more contagious, as H5N1 researchers have, the Spanish team focused on making it less so. The engineered virus, if used as a vaccine, wouldn't spread throughout the body. The virus is capable of infecting a cell, but unable to cause disease, according to Luis Enjuanes, one of the researchers who worked on it.

"The injected vaccine will only replicate in a reduced number of cells and produce enough antigen to immunize the host," Enjuanes said. "Our achievement was a combination of synthetic biology and genetic engineering."

Enjuanes' approach isn't the only one being tried with MERS. Both Novavax and Greffex have come out with candidate vaccines for the virus, though neither has been through clinical trials. Both of those vaccines use closely-related SARS viruses to stimulate the immune system, while the Spanish researchers' vaccine is nearly identical to MERS. 

So in the end, you have engineering involving two different deadly viruses. This one isn't likely to produce any outcry, and it might help save lives.