Was Omicron Genetically Engineered?

Photo by Ivan Diaz on Unsplash

I don’t know the answer, nor am I advocating for a conspiracy. The question is simply meant to stimulate thoughtful discussion on an important topic that should concern all of humanity: how should these emerging technologies be regulated?

Let me begin by saying that genetically manipulating viruses in order to prevent and/or mitigate pandemics has been a dream of modern science for many decades. Using modern science to intervene in viral dynamics in a real world ecosystem context is a stated aim of some of the world’s leading research organizations, including the Ecohealth Alliance that has become widely known in the pandemic. Whether or not Omicron was itself engineered and introduced into the population, the requisite technology to deliberately manipulate RNA viruses does exist, and raising such a question highlights the complex ethical and regulatory landscape surrounding this kind of research.

How would this work, exactly? Scientists have spent many years of research to understand how variations in the genetic code of a virus are connected to its ability to infect various species, the health effects of infection, the immune response that develops after infection, and more. One of the most ambitious goals of this kind of research is to construct a model of relevant viruses, connecting their genetic codes to actual behaviors in real biological contexts. With such a model in hand, scientists could predict how particular genetic variation alters the behavior of the virus in a way changes the transmissibility, severity of illness, developed immune response, etc. in particular ways. In a lab that has the ability to make genetically modified viruses with specific genetic codes, designed viruses could be produced and subsequently introduced into the animal population to achieve the desired effect.

Why would they do it? I’ll assume that they have only good intentions, and that the primary aim of such technology development is for the mutual benefit of humankind and concerned animal species. If a virus can be made to (1) be highly contagious, (2) produce less severe illness, and (3) invoke a strong immune response to itself and more dangerous variants, then its introduction into the population will have the effect of out-competing and displacing the more dangerous variants, and allow it to safely circulate in the population ever after. It is a much better solution than vaccination, since it spreads naturally and costs nothing once it is released.

How would they do it, if they achieved such a breakthrough? This is an interesting question, and one can imagine trying to step into the shoes of a lab scientist who is convinced that she has just discovered the silver bullet genetic variant of SARS2 that has the above 3 properties and could put an end to the global pandemic. What would she do, given that there is no regulatory framework to dictate how the rollout of a genetically engineered variant would be tested and approved for release into the population? If she truly believed that she had found the solution, would it be better to simply release it as quickly as possible, without asking for permission? Would she be violating any laws if she did so, given that there may be no laws on the books to prohibit such actions? Should she discuss with her colleagues, and subject her idea to peer review?

What should we do about it? These are all interesting questions, and highlight the complexity and importance of developing a robust regulatory framework for governing how this kind of research is carried out. How does one define what is best for humans and other animal species? Are we playing with something dangerous, that we do not understand well enough and for which interventions could have unforeseen consequences? Even if they had all the best intentions in the world, what if they made a mistake or an error? What if a viral sample leaked out of the lab and into a population by accident in the course of this research? What if the technology fell into the hands of people who had less than good intentions? There are many “what ifs” that are plausible enough to raise concern and hopefully invoke more discussion about how this kind of science needs to be regulated, and how to keep it out of the hands of people who may not have the best intentions.

It is past time to have this discussion…let it begin.

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Expat American father, husband, scientist, professor, philosopher, and artist. Non-partisan gadfly speaking truth to power.

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John Hernlund

John Hernlund

Expat American father, husband, scientist, professor, philosopher, and artist. Non-partisan gadfly speaking truth to power.

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