Updated: May 11
While the world struggles to contain the pandemic, many scientists are on the race to find a vaccine. Amidst this scramble to treat patients while also developing viral control so that normal operations can resume, several important questions have been posed. One of the most important concerns among bio scientists has been whether synthetic viral controls are better than live viral controls. Synthetic viral controls are better than live viral controls when it comes to efforts in developing treatments and diagnostics. They are easier to use as they offer access to labs for their work in studying the viral genomic material to come up with countermeasures.
As time goes by, scientists continue to innovate in regard to the methods used in determining countermeasures and exploring vaccines. For instance, Twist Bioscience notes that in the early moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists used live virus for controls. However, it was fast determined to pose many challenges especially when it came to handing and transporting them. This is because of the number of regulations associated with such practices to ensure that the workers and communities were kept safe. Viral controls and especially positive controls are of utmost importance in aiding researchers to determine why tests yield a negative result. Armed with this knowledge, researchers can then differentiate the results that are negative due to a flawed test and those negative due to the absence of the COVID-19 virus in the patient sample.
How are labs able to recreate a virus? According to Technology Review, it all starts from readouts of the live virus’s genetic sequences. Companies such as Twist Bioscience, Atum and Integrated DNA Technology among others are able to manufacture DNA molecules and hence can create a copy of a custom genome. This may sound rather scary considering the concern of bioterrorism but with careful monitoring, synthetic viral controls offer more benefits than risks. Using synthetic virus provides researchers with a myriad of ways to study vaccines, treatments and mutations of the live virus.
Here are a number of ways and instances when synthetic viral controls are better than live viral controls:
When Samples of the Live Virus Are Unavailable
Synthetic viruses are important to scientists especially when they cannot get hold of live samples from a certain site of the outbreak especially in the case of an epidemic. For example, looking at the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many lockdown measures and restrictions in transportation after the outbreak in Wuhan. This of course would impede any plans to transport samples to various labs for diagnostics. To counter this hurdle, synthetic viruses are important because the medical research community can still study the virus behind the outbreak without having to wait months on end. This allows faster development of diagnostic tests, treatments and potential vaccines.
They Aid in Tracking an Outbreak’s Uncertain Path
With any viral outbreak, there is always concern about mutations and synthetic viruses offer scientists the chance to study potential mutations of the virus and manipulate it to find ways to develop a therapy. For researchers to work on tests, treatments and vaccines, they also need to predict the unpredictable path of the epidemic. This is by studying the virus’s behaviour under a myriad of different conditions while also figuring out the ways in which it can mutate and finding its weak points. Effective research that is fast can go a long way to ensure that the medical community is not caught flat footed. That therapies can be developed as fast as possible makes it possible to not only save lives but also limit the spread of the pandemic get it under control fasters than when operating while in the dark. BBC's article notes that , since they are in constant replication and mutation, viruses offer a huge potential of genetic innovation and thus, it is important for researchers to have access to synthetic viruses as early on in an outbreak as possible.
Help Identify Viral Variants
Sometime in September 2020, public health officials dealt with cases of Sars-Cov-2 infection among young people in La Crosse County. A team of researchers found that most of the cases were caused by two viral variants with clusters of young people infected with the same variant (Nature). This information helps pinpoint the spread of the virus to student gatherings. Synthetic versions of such variants can help in the development of tests that can be used to assess the level of the epidemic.
Where Large Quantities of Viral Controls Are Needed
Synthetic viral control offers an important advantage over their live counterparts because they simplify research workflows. Susan Goebel, who deals with streamlining management, leadership, and processes in various Bioscience organizations emphasizes the need for simple research workflows. Providing researchers with the right resources is critical to ensure efficient and simplified research workflows. One way to ensure access to resources is to provide research materials and also prevent potential shortages. With synthetic viruses, it is easier to generate large quantities that are easier to transport to ensure that researchers have the necessary tools to develop diagnostic tests, treatments and potential vaccines. Access to synthetic viral controls also provide researchers with a way to keep up with the evolving virus. New variants can render existing diagnostics ineffective in identification and hence, new controls that can be dispatched quickly can arm the medical and research communities with emerging data allowing them to adapt accordingly.
In a nutshell, the medical research community is embracing synthetic viruses to base their research on due to the many benefits they present. While concerns of biosecurity and bioterrorism persist, the difficulty in reconstruction as well as screening protocols and regulations make it possible to alleviate the risks in favour of the numerous benefits.
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