Chinese Scientists Engineer Synthetic Virus Mimicking Deadly Ebola Symptoms

Researchers at Hebei Medical University embarked on a contentious project to create a virus using components from the Ebola virus.

In a groundbreaking yet controversial study, scientists at Hebei Medical University have engineered a new synthetic virus that can kill a person in just three days. This research, published in the journal Science Direct, aims to simulate the deadly Ebola virus to gain deeper insights into its pathology. While the study underscores significant scientific advancements, it also raises critical ethical and safety concerns.

The Experiment and Its Goals

Researchers at Hebei Medical University embarked on a contentious project to create a virus using components from the Ebola virus. Their primary objective was to investigate the progression and symptoms of Ebola by developing a model that could replicate its effects on the human body. The team utilized vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), modifying it to carry the glycoprotein (GP) from the Ebola virus. This protein is essential for the virus to enter and infect host cells.

The experiments were conducted on a group of Syrian hamsters, comprising five females and five males. After being injected with the engineered virus, the hamsters developed severe symptoms akin to those experienced by human Ebola patients. These included systemic diseases and multi-organ failure, leading to the death of the animals within three days. Some hamsters also showed eye secretions impairing their vision, a symptom associated with optic nerve disorders observed in Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) patients.

Implications for Ebola Research

One of the main motivations behind this study was to create an animal model that safely replicates Ebola symptoms without the need for Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) facilities. Ebola research typically requires highly secure labs, but most facilities worldwide only meet BSL-2 standards. By using VSV engineered with Ebola GP, the researchers developed a model that could be studied in lower-security environments. This breakthrough enables more accessible and widespread research into Ebola and potential treatments.

Upon the death of the hamsters, the researchers harvested their organs to analyze the virus’s impact. They discovered that the virus had accumulated in critical tissues, including the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, kidneys, stomach, intestines, and brain. This widespread presence confirmed the virus’s ability to cause multi-organ failure, mirroring the devastating effects of Ebola in humans.

 Ethical and Safety Concerns

While the study’s success offers a rapid preclinical evaluation method for medical countermeasures against Ebola, potentially accelerating the development of vaccines and treatments, it also raises significant ethical and safety concerns. The creation of such a deadly virus, even within a controlled environment, poses risks of accidental release or misuse. Given the ongoing debates about lab safety and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, this research highlights the need for stringent oversight and transparent ethical guidelines in virology studies.

The Urgency of Ebola Research

Ebola remains one of the most feared viruses due to its high mortality rate and severe symptoms. The last major Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016 affected several West African countries, resulting in thousands of deaths. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), such outbreaks emphasize the urgent need for effective medical responses and the importance of research like the one conducted at Hebei Medical University.

This study at Hebei Medical University signifies a pivotal moment in virology research, presenting both promising advancements and profound ethical dilemmas. As the scientific community continues to navigate these complexities, the balance between innovation and safety remains paramount.

Also read: Mutant Ebola Virus Developed In Chinese Lab Causes Scabs Over Eyeballs