Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research
Lab-made coronavirus related to SARS can infect human cells.
Creation of a chimaera
An experiment that created a hybrid version of a bat coronavirus — one related to the virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) — has triggered renewed debate over whether engineering lab variants of viruses with possible pandemic potential is worth the risks.
In an article published in Nature Medicine1 on 9 November, scientists investigated a virus called SHC014, which is found in horseshoe bats in China. The researchers created a chimaeric virus, made up of a surface protein of SHC014 and the backbone of a SARS virus that had been adapted to grow in mice and to mimic human disease. The chimaera infected human airway cells — proving that the surface protein of SHC014 has the necessary structure to bind to a key receptor on the cells and to infect them. It also caused disease in mice, but did not kill them.
Although almost all coronaviruses isolated from bats have not been able to bind to the key human receptor, SHC014 is not the first that can do so. In 2013, researchers reported this ability for the first time in a different coronavirus isolated from the same bat population2.
The findings reinforce suspicions that bat coronaviruses capable of directly infecting humans (rather than first needing to evolve in an intermediate animal host) may be more common than previously thought, the researchers say.
But other virologists question whether the information gleaned from the experiment justifies the potential risk. Although the extent of any risk is difficult to assess, Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, points out that the researchers have created a novel virus that “grows remarkably well” in human cells. “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory,” he says.
The argument is essentially a rerun of the debate over whether to allow lab research that increases the virulence, ease of spread or host range of dangerous pathogens — what is known as ‘gain-of-function’ research. In October 2014, the US government imposed a moratorium on federal funding of such research on the viruses that cause SARS, influenza and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, a deadly disease caused by a virus that sporadically jumps from camels to people).
The latest study was already under way before the US moratorium began, and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) allowed it to proceed while it was under review by the agency, says Ralph Baric, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a co-author of the study. The NIH eventually concluded that the work was not so risky as to fall under the moratorium, he says.
But Wain-Hobson disapproves of the study because, he says, it provides little benefit, and reveals little about the risk that the wild SHC014 virus in bats poses to humans.
Other experiments in the study show that the virus in wild bats would need to evolve to pose any threat to humans — a change that may never happen, although it cannot be ruled out. Baric and his team reconstructed the wild virus from its genome sequence and found that it grew poorly in human cell cultures and caused no significant disease in mice.
“The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk,” agrees Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biodefence expert at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. Both Ebright and Wain-Hobson are long-standing critics of gain-of-function research.
In their paper, the study authors also concede that funders may think twice about allowing such experiments in the future. “Scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue,” they write, adding that discussion is needed as to “whether these types of chimeric virus studies warrant further investigation versus the inherent risks involved”.
But Baric and others say the research did have benefits. The study findings “move this virus from a candidate emerging pathogen to a clear and present danger”, says Peter Daszak, who co-authored the 2013 paper. Daszak is president of the EcoHealth Alliance, an international network of scientists, headquartered in New York City, that samples viruses from animals and people in emerging-diseases hotspots across the globe.
Studies testing hybrid viruses in human cell culture and animal models are limited in what they can say about the threat posed by a wild virus, Daszak agrees. But he argues that they can help indicate which pathogens should be prioritized for further research attention.
Without the experiments, says Baric, the SHC014 virus would still be seen as not a threat. Previously, scientists had believed, on the basis of molecular modelling and other studies, that it should not be able to infect human cells. The latest work shows that the virus has already overcome critical barriers, such as being able to latch onto human receptors and efficiently infect human airway cells, he says. “I don’t think you can ignore that.” He plans to do further studies with the virus in non-human primates, which may yield data more relevant to humans.
Joining us today is Pfizer’s former Vice President and Chief Scientist for Allergy and Respiratory, Michael Yeadon, here to discuss his expert opinion on the topics of COVID-19, mRNA vaccine technology, as well as suppression and outright censorship of medical and scientific experts. All Video Source Links Can Be Found Here At The Last American Vagabond:
Michael Yeadon was a scientific researcher and vice president at drugs giant Pfizer Inc. He co-founded a successful biotech. Then his career took an unexpected turn.
Late last year, a semi-retired British scientist co-authored a petition to Europe’s medicines regulator. The petitioners made a bold demand: Halt COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials.
Even bolder was their argument for doing so: They speculated, without providing evidence, that the vaccines could cause infertility in women.
The document appeared on a German website on Dec.1. Scientists denounced the theory. Regulators weren’t swayed, either: Weeks later, the European Medicines Agency approved the European Union’s first COVID-19 shot, co-developed by Pfizer Inc. But damage was already done.
Social media quickly spread exaggerated claims that COVID-19 jabs cause female infertility. Within weeks, doctors and nurses in Britain began reporting that concerned women were asking them whether it was true, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. In January, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a non-profit organization, found that 13% of unvaccinated people in the United States had heard that “COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility.”
What gave the debunked claim credibility was that one of the petition’s co-authors, Michael Yeadon, wasn’t just any scientist. The 60-year-old is a former vice president of Pfizer, where he spent 16 years as an allergy and respiratory researcher. He later co-founded a biotech firm that the Swiss drugmaker Novartis purchased for at least $325 million.
“These claims are false, dangerous and deeply irresponsible.”
In recent months, Yeadon (pronounced Yee-don) has emerged as an unlikely hero of the so-called anti-vaxxers, whose adherents question the safety of many vaccines, including for the coronavirus. The anti-vaxxer movement has amplified Yeadon’s skeptical views about COVID-19 vaccines and tests, government-mandated lockdowns and the arc of the pandemic. Yeadon has said he personally doesn’t oppose the use of all vaccines. But many health experts and government officials worry that opinions like his fuel vaccine hesitancy – a reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated – that could prolong the pandemic. COVID-19 has already killed more than 2.6 million people worldwide.
“These claims are false, dangerous and deeply irresponsible,” said a spokesman for Britain’s Department of Health & Social Care, when asked about Yeadon’s views. “COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to protect people from coronavirus and will save thousands of lives.”
Recent reports of blood clots and abnormal bleeding in a small number of recipients of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine have cast doubt on that shot’s safety, leading several European countries to suspend its use. The developments are likely to fuel vaccine hesitancy further, although there is no evidence of a causative link between the AstraZeneca product and the affected patients’ conditions.
Yeadon didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. In reporting this story, Reuters reviewed thousands of his tweets over the past two years, along with other writings and statements. It also interviewed five people who know him, including four of his former colleagues at Pfizer.
A Pfizer spokesman declined to comment on Yeadon and his stint with the company, beyond emphasizing that there is no evidence that its vaccine, which it developed with its German partner BioNTech, causes infertility in women.
References to Yeadon’s petition appear on the website of a group founded by influential vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., scion of the American political dynasty, who recently was banned on Instagram because of his COVID-19 vaccine posts. Syndicated writer and vaccine skeptic Michelle Malkin reported Yeadon’s concern about fertility in a column last month under the headline, “Pregnant Women: Beware of COVID Shots.” And a blog with an alarmist headline – “Head of Pfizer Research: Covid vaccine is female sterilization” – was shared thousands of times on Facebook.
The visage and views of Yeadon, widely identified as an “Ex-VP of Pfizer,’’ can be seen on social media in languages including German, Portuguese, Danish and Czech. A Facebook post carries a video from November in which Yeadon claimed that the pandemic “fundamentally… is over.” The post has been viewed more than a million times.
In October, Yeadon wrote a column for the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail newspaper that also appeared on MailOnline, one of the world’s most-visited news websites. It declared that deaths caused by COVID-19, which then totaled about 45,000 in Britain, will soon “fizzle out” and Britons “should immediately be allowed to resume normal life.” Since then, the disease has killed about another 80,000 people in the UK.
Yeadon isn’t the only respected scientist to have challenged the scientific consensus on COVID-19 and expressed controversial views.
Michael Levitt, a winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry, told the Stanford Daily last summer that he expected the pandemic would end in the United States in 2020 and kill no more than 175,000 Americans – a third of the current total – and “when we come to look back, we’re going to say that wasn’t such a terrible disease.” And Luc Montagnier, another Nobel Prize winner, said last year that he believed the coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab. Many experts doubt that, but so far there is no way to prove or disprove it.
Levitt told Reuters that his projections about the pandemic in the United States were wrong, but he still believes COVID-19 eventually won’t be seen as “a terrible disease” and that lockdowns “caused a great deal of collateral damage and may not have been needed.” Montagnier didn’t respond to a request for comment.
What gives Yeadon particular credibility is the fact that he worked at Pfizer, says Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an organization that combats online misinformation. “Yeadon’s background gives his dangerous and harmful messages false credibility.”
In a debate last fall in Britain’s House of Commons about the government’s response to the pandemic, parliamentarian Richard Drax called Yeadon an “eminent” scientist, and cited his view “that the virus is both manageable and nearing its end.” Drax didn’t respond to a request for comment.
More recently, David Kurten, a member of the London Assembly – an elected body – tweeted there is a “real danger” that COVID-19 vaccines could leave women infertile. “The ‘cure’ must not be worse than the ‘disease’,” Kurten wrote. He, too, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Why Yeadon transformed from mainstream scientist to COVID-19 vaccine skeptic remains a mystery. Thousands of his tweets stretching back to the start of the pandemic document a dramatic shift in his views – early on, he supported a vaccine strategy. But they offer few clues to explain his radical turnabout.
Some former colleagues at Pfizer say they no longer recognize the Mike Yeadon they once knew. They described him as a knowledgeable and intelligent man who always insisted on seeing evidence and generally avoided publicity.
One of those ex-colleagues is Sterghios A. Moschos, who holds degrees in molecular biology and pharmaceutics. In December, Yeadon posted on Twitter a spoof sign that said, “DITCH THE MASK.” Moschos tweeted back: “Mike what hell ?! Are you out to actively kill people? You do realize that if you are wrong, your suggestions will result in deaths ??”
Unfortunately, those who orchestrated this covid-19 hoax would not have gone this far of destroying global economies and lives unless they were planning on going all the way. The future of humanity looks grim. The most important thing we can do is protect our children from the monsters who have hijacked humanity…
I like much of what Dr Yeadon has to say. That said, he doesn’t explain why all of a sudden Influenza cases have disappeared from global statistics. My only conclusion, like many highly qualified observers have noted, is that Covid 19 is just the flu rebranded. As such, there is absolutely no reason for ANYBODY to take these dangerous experimental gene therapies – especially the frail and elderly as Yeadon suggests