TWiV 364: It’s not SARS 2.0

On episode #364 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Rich, and Kathy speak with Ralph Baric and Vineet Menachery about their research on the potential of SARS-like bat coronaviruses  to infect human cells and cause disease in mice.

You can find TWiV #364 at

Bat SARS-like coronavirus: It’s not SARS 2.0!

SARSA study on the potential of SARS-virus-like bat coronaviruses to cause human disease has reawakened the debate on the risks and benefits of engineering viruses. Let’s go over the science and then see if any of the criticisms have merit.

The SARS epidemic of 2003 was caused by a novel coronavirus (CoV) that originated in bats. Results of sequence analyses have shown that viruses related to SARS-CoV continue to circulate in bats, but their potential for infecting humans is not known. One can learn only so much from looking at viral sequences – eventually experiments need to be done.

To answer the question ‘do the SARS-CoV like viruses circulating in bats have the potential to infect humans’, a recombinant virus was created in which the gene encoding the spike glycoprotein of SARS virus was swapped with the gene from a bat virus called SHC014. The SARS-CoV that was used (called SARS-MA15) had been previously passaged from mouse to mouse until it was able to replicate in that host. The use of this mouse-adapted virus allows studies on viral disease and its prevention in a mammalian host.

The recombinant virus, called SHC014-MA15, replicated well in a human epithelial airway cell line and in primary human airway epithelial cell cultures. The recombinant virus replicated just as well as the Urbani strain of human SARS-CoV. This result was surprising because the part of the spike protein of SCH014 that binds the cell receptor, ACE2, is sufficiently different from the SARS-CoV spike, suggesting that the virus might not infect human cells.

First lesson learned: looking at a viral genome sequence alone does not answer all questions. The spike glycoprotein of a bat coronavirus can mediate virus entry into human cells.

Next the authors wanted to know if SHC014-MA15 could infect mice and cause respiratory disease. Ten week old mice were infected intranasally with either SCH014-MA15 or SARS-MA15. Animals infected with SARS-MA15 lost weight rapidly and died within 4 days. Mice infected with SCH014-MA15 lost weight but did not die. When older (12 month) mice were used (these are more susceptible to SARS-MA15 infection), both viruses caused weight loss, but SARS-MA15 killed all the mice while SCH014-MA15 was less virulent (20% of mice died).

Second lesson learned: a human SARS-CoV with a bat glycoprotein can infect mice but is attenuated compared to a human, mouse adapted strain.

The next question asked was whether monoclonal antibodies (think ZMAPP, used in some Ebolavirus infected patients) against SARS-CoV could protect cells from infection with SCH014-MA15. The answer is no.

Third lesson learned: anti-SARS-CoV monoclonal antibodies do not protect from infection with SCH014-MA15.

Could an inactivated SARS-CoV vaccine protect mice from infection with SCH014-MA15?  An inactivated SARS-CoV vaccine provided no protection against infection SCH-014-MA15. When mice were first infected with a high dose of SCH014-MA15, there was some protection against challenge with the same virus, but protection did not last. And the side effects, weight loss and some death, would not be acceptable for a vaccine.

Fourth lesson learned: an inactivated SARS-CoV vaccine does not protect against infection with SCH014-MA15, and the recombinant virus itself is barely protective but not a safe vaccine.

In the final experiment of the paper, the SCH014 virus was recovered from an infectious DNA clone made from the genome sequence. This virus infected primary human airway epithelial cell cultures but not as well as did SARS-CoV Urbani. In mice SCH014 did not cause weight loss and it replicated to lower titers than SARS-CoV Urbani.

Fifth lesson learned: At least one circulating SARS-like bat CoV can infect human cells, but causes only mild disease in mice. Additional changes in the viral genome would likely be needed to cause a SARS-like epidemic.

Let’s now take a look at some of the public statements that have been made about this work.

Richard Ebright says that ‘The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk”. He could not be more wrong. For Ebright’s benefit, I submit my summary above of what we have learned from this work. Furthermore, I suggest that Ebright has not read the paper, or if he had, he has not put it in the context of the gaps in our knowledge of bat coronavirus potential to infect humans. This type of negative quote is easily picked up by the press, but it’s completely inaccurate.

Simon Wain-Hobson says that a novel virus was created that ‘grows remarkably well’ in human cells; ‘if the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory’.

I do agree that we cannot predict what would happen if SCH014-MA15 were released into the human population. In my opinion the risk of release and spread of this virus in humans is very low. The attenuated virulence of the SCH014-MA15 virus in mice suggests (but does not prove) that the recombinant virus is not optimized for replication in mammals. Recall that the virus used to produce the recombinant, SARS-MA15 is mouse-adapted and may very well have lost some virulence for humans. In a broader sense, virologists have been manipulating viruses for years and none have gone on to cause an epidemic in humans. While there have been recent lapses in high-containment biological facilities, none have resulted in harm, and work has gone on for years in many other facilities without harm. I understand that none of these arguments tell us what will happen in the future, but these are the data that we have to calculate risk. Bottom line: the risk of these experiments is very low.

I think the statements by Ebright and Wain-Hobson are simply meant to scare the public and push us towards regulation of what they believe are ‘dangerous’ experiments. They are misleading because they ignore the substantial advances of the work. The experiments in this paper were well thought out, and the conclusions (listed above) are substantial. Creation of the recombinant virus SCH014-MA15 was needed to show that the spike glycoprotein could mediate entry into human cells. Only after that result was obtained did it make sense to recover the SCH014 bat virus. We now understand that at least one circulating bat SARS-like CoV can infect human cells and the mouse respiratory tract. More importantly, infection cannot be prevented with current SARS monoclonal antibodies or vaccines.

This information means that we should embark on a program to understand the different SARS-like spike glyocoproteins on bat CoVs, and try to develop therapeutics to prevent a possible second spillover into humans. This work will require further studies of the type reported in this paper.

My conclusion: these are low risk, high benefit experiments. You may disagree with my assessment of risk, but you cannot deny the benefits of this work. If you do, you simply haven’t read and understood the paper.

As you might imagine, the press has had a field day with this work. But many of these articles are misleading. For example, the headline of the Motherboard article touts “Ethical Questions Arise After Scientists Brew Super Powerful ‘SARS 2.0’ Virus”. As I pointed out above, both SCH014-MA15 and SCH104 are less virulent in mice than SARS-CoV, so this headline is completely wrong. An article in Sputnik International has the headline “Uncaging the Animal: Concerns Rise Over Scientists Tests on SARS 2.0” and the sub-headline is “‘SARS 2.0’ is closer than you might think as scientists are continuing medical tests that could create a whole new virus outbreak.” The article claims that the experiments are ‘science for the sake of science’. If the author had read the Nature article, he or she could not have reached that conclusion. Both articles feature scary quotations by Ebright and Wain-Hobson. The most egregious may be an article in the Daily Mail, which claims that “New SARS-like virus can jump directly from bats to humans without mutating, sparking fears of a future epidemic”. This statement is also wrong – there are no data in the paper which show that the virus can jump from bats to humans!

Perhaps at fault for much of this hyperbole is the press release on this work issued by the University of North Carolina, the home of the paper’s authors. The headline of the press release is: “New SARS-like virus can jump directly from bats to humans, no treatment available”. Exactly the same as the Daily Mail! Other errors in the press release emphasize that researchers need to work more closely with publicity departments to ensure that the correct message is conveyed to writers.

TWiV 363: Eat flu and dyad

On episode #363 of the science show This Week in Virology, The TWiVers reveal influenza virus replication in the ferret mammary gland and spread to a nursing infant, and selection of transmissible influenza viruses in the soft palate.

You can find TWiV #363 at

Influenza virus in breast milk

Ferret mother-infantDuring breastfeeding, mothers provide the infant with nutrients, beneficial bacteria, and immune protection. Fluids from the infant may also enter the mammary gland through retrograde flux of the nipple. Studies in a ferret model reveal that influenza virus replicates in the mammary gland, is shed in breast milk and transmitted to the infant. Virus may also travel in the opposite direction, from infant to mother.

The role of the mammary gland in influenza virus transmission was studied using a ferret model comprising lactating mothers and nursing infants. Intranasal inoculation of nursing mother ferrets with the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus lead to viral replication and development of influenza in both mother and infant. When the study design was reversed, and 4 week old nursing ferrets were inoculated intranasally with the same virus, viral replication and disease ensued first in the infants, and then in the mothers. Infectious virus was recovered both in the mammary glands and in the nipples at day 4 post infant inoculation, and in mother’s milk from 3-5 days post infant inoculation. Histopathological examination of sections of mammary glands from infected mothers revealed destruction of the mammary architecture.

These results show that nursing infants may pass influenza virus to mothers. It seems clear that influenza virus replicates in the mammary gland and that infectious virus is present in milk. How does this virus infect the mother? One possibility is that infection is transmitted by respiratory contact with virus-containing milk, or by inhalation of aerosols produced by nursing. How influenza virus in the mammary gland would reach the mother’s lung via the blood to cause respiratory disease is more difficult to envision and seems unlikely.

When influenza virus was inoculated into the mammary gland of lactating mothers via the lactiferous ducts, both mother and breast feeding infant developed serious influenza. Infectious virus was detected first in the nasal wash of infants, then later in the nasal wash of mothers. Breast milk contained infectious virus starting on day 2 after inoculation. Histopathological examination of sections from infected mammary glands revealed destruction of glandular architecture and cessation of milk production. This observation is consistent with the results of gene expression analysis of RNA from virus infected mammary glands, which revealed reduction in transcripts of genes associated with milk production.

To determine if human breast cells can be infected with influenza virus, three different human epithelial breast cell lines were infected with the 2009 H1N1 virus strain. Virus-induced cell killing was observed and infectious virus was produced.

Even if we assume that influenza virus can replicate in the human breast, the implications for influenza transmission and disease severity are not clear. Transmission of HIV-1 from mother to infant by breast milk has been well documented. In contrast to influenza virus, HIV-1 is present in the blood from where it spreads to the breast. Most human influenza virus strains do not enter the blood so it seems unlikely that virus would spread to the breast of a mother infected via the respiratory route. However, viral RNA has been detected in the blood of humans infected with the 2009 H1N1 strain, the virus used in these ferret studies. Therefore we cannot rule out the possibility that some strains of influenza virus spread from lung via the blood to the breast, allowing infection of a nursing infant. Some answers might be provided by determining if influenza virus can be detected in the breast milk of humans with influenza.

What would be the implication of a nursing infant infecting the mother’s breast with influenza virus? As I mentioned above, it seems unlikely that this virus would enter the blood, and even if it could, how would the virus infect the apical side of the respiratory epithelium? What does seem clear is that viral replication in the breast could lead to a decrease in milk production which could be detrimental to the infant. If the mother had multiple births, then influenza virus might be transmitted to siblings nursing on the infected mother.

Are you wondering how an infant drinking influenza virus-laded breast milk acquires a respiratory infection? Recently it has been shown that influenza virus replicates in the soft palate of ferrets. The soft palate has mucosal surfaces that face both the oral cavity and the nasopharynx. Ingested virus could first replicate in the soft palate, then spread to the nasopharynx and the lung. A simpler explanation is that nursing produces virus-containing aerosols which are inhaled by the infant.

TWiV 362: Gotta catch ’em all

On episode #362 of the science show This Week in Virology, the virus virtuosos, with their usual verve, illuminate a new method to identify all the viral nucleic acids in a sample, and regulation of viral gene expression by codon usage.

You can find TWiV #362 at

A huge host contribution to virus mutation rates

HIV-1 mutation rateThe high mutation rate of RNA viruses enables them to evolve in the face of different selection pressures, such as entering a new host or countering host defenses. It has always been thought that the sources of such mutations are the enzymes that copy viral RNA genomes: they make random errors which they cannot correct. Now it appears that a cell enzyme makes an even greater contribution the mutation rate of an RNA virus.

Deep sequencing was used to determine the mutation rate of HIV-1 in the blood of AIDS patients by searching for premature stop codons in open reading frames of viral RNA. Because stop codons terminate protein synthesis, they do not allow production of infectious viruses. Therefore they can be used to calculate the mutation rate in the absence of selection. The mutation rate calculated in this way, 0.000093 mutations per base per cell, was slightly higher than previously calculated from studies in cell culture.

When HIV-1 infects a cell, the enzyme reverse transcriptase converts its RNA genome to DNA, which then integrates into the host cell genome. Identification of stop codons in integrated viral DNA should provide an even better estimate of the mutation rate of reverse transcriptase, because mutations that block the production of infectious virus have not yet been removed by selection. The mutation rate calculated by this approach was 0.0041 mutations per base per cell, or one mutation every 250 bases. This mutation rate is 44 times higher than the value calculated from viral RNA in patient plasma (illustrated).

Sequencing of integrated viral DNA from many patients revealed that the vast majority of mutations leading to insertion of stop codons – 98% – were the consequence of editing by the cellular enzyme APOBEC3G. This enzyme is a deaminase that changes dC to dU in the first strand of viral DNA synthesized by reverse transcriptase. APOBEC3G constitutes an intrinsic defense against HIV-1 infection, because extensive mutation of the viral DNA reduces viral infectivity. Indeed, most integrated HIV proviruses are not infectious as a consequence of APOBEC3G-induced mutations. That infection proceeds at all is due to incorporation of the viral protein vif in the virus particles. Vif binds APOBEC3G, leading to its degradation in cells.

The mutation rate of integrated HIV-1 DNA calculated by this method is much higher than that of other RNA viruses. This high mutation rate is driven by the cellular enzyme, APOBEC3G. At least half of the mutations observed in plasma viral RNAs are also contributed by this enzyme.

It has always been thought that error-prone viral RNA polymerases are largely responsible for the high mutation rates of RNA viruses. The results of this study add a new driver of viral variation, a cellular enzyme. APOBEC enzymes are known to introduce mutations in the genomes of other viruses, including hepatitis B virus, papillomaviruses, and herpesviruses. Furthermore, the cellular adenosine deaminase enzyme can edit the genomes of RNA viruses such as measles virus, parainfluenza virus, and respiratory syncytial virus. Cellular enzymes may therefore play a much greater role in the generation of viral diversity than previously imagined.

TWiV 361: Zombie viruses on the loose

On episode #361 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVsters discuss Frederick Novy’s return from retirement to recover a lost rat virus, and evidence for persistence of Ebolavirus in semen.

You can find TWiV #361 at

Viral variation in single cells

QuasispeciesIt is well known that virus populations display phenomenal diversity. Virus populations are dynamic distributions of nonidentical but related members called a quasispecies. This diversity is restricted in single cells, but is restored within two infectious cycles.

Single cells infected with vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) were isolated using a glass microcapillary, and incubated overnight to allow completion of virus replication. Replication in a single cell imposes a genetic bottleneck, as few viral genomes are present. Virus-containing culture fluids were then subjected to plaque assay, during which 2 viral replication cycles took place. For each infected cell, 7-10 plaques were picked and used for massive parallel genome sequencing. A total of 881 plaques from 90 individual cells were analyzed in this way. Of the 532 single nucleotide differences  identified, 36 were also present in the parental virus stock.

An interesting observation was that over half of the infected cells contained multiple parental variants. However, the multiplicity of infection (MOI) that was used should have only resulted in multiple infections in 15% of the cells. The results cannot be explained by RNA recombination as this process occurs at a very low rate in VSV-infected cells. The key is that MOI only describes the infectious virus particles that are delivered to cells.  Because the particle-to-pfu ratio of VSV is high, it seems likely that many cells received both infectious and non-infectious particles. Furthermore, it is known that some RNA viruses may be transmitted to other cells in groups, either by aggregation of particles or within a membrane vesicle.

The conclusion from these results is very important: a single plaque-forming unit can contain multiple, genetically diverse particles.  Plaque purification has been used for years in virology to produce clonal virus stocks, but at least for VSV, a plaque is not produced by a single viral genome.

The 496 single nucleotide changes that were not present in the parent virus arose after the bottleneck imposed by single cell replication. Between 0 and 17 changes were identified in the 7-10 plaques isolated from each cell. The single-cell bottleneck restricted the parental virus diversity to 36 nucleotide changes. In contrast, within 2 viral generations, the viral diversity was over ten times greater (496 changes). This observation illustrates the capacity of the RNA virus genome to restore diversity after a bottleneck.

The number of changes identified in the 7-10 plaques isolated from each cell, between 0 and 17, shows that some cells produce more diverse progeny than others. At least two sources of this variation were identified. The viral yield per cell varied greatly, from 0 to over 3000 PFU. Greater virus yields means more viral RNA replication, and more change for diversity. Indeed, greater virus yields per cell was associated with more mutations in the progeny.

Another explanation for the variation in single-cell diversity comes from analysis of cell #36. This infected cell produced viruses with 17 changes not found in the parental virus, more than any other cell. One of these changes lead to a single amino acid change in the viral RNA polymerase. This amino acid change appears to increase the mutation rate of the enzyme. Similar mutators – changes that increase the error frequency – have also been described in the poliovirus RNA polymerase.

RNA viruses must carry out error-prone replication to adapt to new environments. A consequence is that RNA virus populations exist close to an error threshold beyond which infectivity is lost. How the balance is maintained is not understood. The results of this study suggest that some infected cells may produce a highly diverse population, while in others a more conserved sequence is maintained. This distribution of diversity might permit the necessary evolvability without the lethality conferred by having too many mutations.

I would be very interested to know if the conclusions of this work would be changed by the ability to determine the sequences of all the viral genomes recovered from a single infected cell. The authors note that this is not technically possible, but surely will be in the future.

TWiV 360: From Southeastern Michigan

On episode #360 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent visits the University of Michigan where he and Kathy speak with Michael, Adam, and Akira about polyomaviruses, virus evolution, and virus assembly, on the occasion of naming the department of Microbiology & Immunology a Milestones in Microbiology site.

You can find TWiV #360 at Or you can watch the video below.

TWiV 359: A Blossom by any other name

On episode #359 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent speaks with Blossom about her laboratory’s research on Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, including how it transforms cells, the switch between lytic and latent replication, and its interaction with the innate immune system of the host.

You can find TWiV #359 at