Imagine a future scenario where a dangerous new virus is detected in chimpanzees. To prevent this virus from spreading to humans, biologists deliberately decide to infect dozens of wild chimpanzees with a transmissible vaccine – a contagious, laboratory-grown virus that immunizes, rather than harms, its host. The chimpanzees that have now been vaccinated no longer pose a threat to humans.
That solution sounds too good to be true, which is precisely the problem that scientists warn in a new one Political Forum published today in Science. Self-spreading vaccines are potentially dangerous and difficult to handle and are “genetically too unstable to be used safely and predictably outside enclosed facilities,” write the authors, led by Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London and Guy Reeves of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology.
This is not just their opinion, the authors argue. Rather, it is an “evidence-based norm” that has existed for decades, but this “norm now appears to be challenged,” they write. The result is an increased potential for “risky research into laboratory-modified self-spreading viruses,” according to the report. This could lead to a normalization of the concept and possible use in the real world without the right security measures, the researchers claim.
“Self-proliferation vaccine research continues despite the lack of new information that would convincingly refute long-standing evidence-based norms in virology, evolutionary biology, vaccine development, international law, public health, risk assessment and other disciplines.” writes biologists.
Vaccines that spread like a disease are undoubtedly a powerful concept. They could be used to protect animals from disease and / or prevent them from containing viruses that are dangerous to humans. In 2020, biologists Scott Nuismer and James Bull, both of the University of Idaho, argued for precisely this approach in a paper entitled “Self-Disseminating Vaccines to Suppress Zoonoses.” (By self-spreading virus, researchers mean a virus that has been artificially modified to perform a desired function while retaining its ability to spread between hosts.)
By exploiting the viral power of viruses, researchers were able to create biological agents that multiply rapidly through a target population, where viruses perform specific tasks, such as delivering vaccines or sterilizing invasive species. In the late 1980s, Australian researchers dealt with laboratory-modified, infectious viruses using several methods to eradicate foxes, mice, and rabbits, according to the paper.
More conceptually – and certainly more controversially – this strategy could also be used to spread vaccines among humans.
As the paper points out, interest in this biotechnology has increased significantly over the last many years, with the EU (through its Horizon 2020 program), the US National Institutes of Health and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency all currently running programs to explore a wide range of possible uses.
Lentzos, Reeves, and colleagues say it’s time to pump the brakes and consider the implications of this research and all the moving parts needed to make such a thing work. It is not immediately clear, they claim, that self-spreading viruses can be trapped or removed from an environment once released, or who would be responsible for the biocontrol agent if the virus behaves unexpectedly or crosses national borders.
Proponents of the idea say that these viruses can be modified to have short lifespans or made incapable of mutating, but “it needs to be tested experimentally if [manipulations] “could at the same time limit viral replication transmissibility to the extent that they could be perceived as controllable, while maintaining sufficient transmissibility to be considered useful as vaccines in constantly dynamic environments,” according to the report.
Regarding the use of transmissible vaccines to limit the spread of diseases from animals to humans, the researchers say that “the vast majority of virus species that currently exist are undescribed by science”, making it “very difficult to imagine how the significant effort required to develop and test self-propagating vaccines could identify and then prioritize individual viral species circulating in wildlife. ” That viruses are constantly mutating makes this task even more difficult, they add.
In terms of what is needed, the authors call for various safety measures, cost-benefit analyzes and measures such as regulatory oversight. This would involve “a coordinated, global governance effort with coherent regional, national and local implementation.” The essay suggests that national governments update their legislation and guidelines on the matter, while developers and sources of funding for this research “articulate comprehensive and credible regulatory avenues through which they believe the security and effectiveness of self-diversifying approaches could be established.”
In an email, Bull, co-author of the 2020 paper advocating research into this biotechnology, said the authors of the new report “highlight several valid points” and agree that “informed regulatory oversight is essential.” adds that “public acceptance is also crucial.”
“Until we conduct preliminary studies of transmissible vaccines (in confined environments), we will have little evidence to base estimated risks and benefits on,” Bull told Gizmodo. “It can be expected that early articles on transmissible vaccines will explore the theoretical possibilities, many of which will never be practical or, as further work may show, never be safe.”
In an attempt to proceed cautiously, Bull recommended conservative approaches, such as creating a vaccine from a benign virus already present in a target population, as opposed to modifying an otherwise harmful virus. Work into re-drift, a related technology where modified organisms construct an entire species could also help. “Just as gene drive developers have responded to regulatory concerns and invented new designs with limited potential for proliferation, it is expected that investment in laboratory studies of transmissible vaccines will also lead to risk-reducing methods,” Bull argued.
The idea of transmissible vaccines can die on the vine, whether it is due to technical problems, security issues or lack of public acceptance. But it is clear that dedicated research attention is needed, as the potential benefits – and risks – are enormous.
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