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Leaked Grant Proposal Details High-Risk Coronavirus Research

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The proposal, rejected by U.S. military research agency DARPA, describes the insertion of human-specific cleavage sites into SARS-related bat coronaviruses.
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A GRANT PROPOSAL written by the U.S.-based nonprofit the EcoHealth Alliance and submitted in 2018 to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, provides evidence that the group was working — or at least planning to work — on several risky areas of research. Among the scientific tasks the group described in its proposal, which was rejected by DARPA, was the creation of full-length infectious clones of bat SARS-related coronaviruses and the insertion of a tiny part of the virus known as a “proteolytic cleavage site” into bat coronaviruses. Of particular interest was a type of cleavage site able to interact with furin, an enzyme expressed in human cells.

Since the genetic code of the coronavirus that caused the pandemic was first sequenced, scientists have puzzled over the “furin cleavage site.” This strange feature on the spike protein of the virus had never been seen in SARS-related betacoronaviruses, the class to which SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the respiratory illness Covid-19, belongs.

The furin cleavage site enables the virus to more efficiently bind to and release its genetic material into a human cell and is one of the reasons that the virus is so easily transmissible and harmful. But scientists are divided over how this particular site wound up in the virus, and the cleavage site became a major focus of the heated debate over the origins of the pandemic.

“There is no logical reason why an engineered virus would utilize such a suboptimal furin cleavage site, which would entail such an unusual and needlessly complex feat of genetic engineering,” 23 scientists wrote earlier this month in an article in the journal Cell. But the proposal describes the process of looking for novel furin cleavage sites in bat coronaviruses the scientists had sampled and inserting them into the spikes of SARS-related viruses in the laboratory.

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University who has espoused the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in a lab, agreed. “The relevance of this is that SARS Cov-2, the pandemic virus, is the only virus in its entire genus of SARS-related coronaviruses that contains a fully functional cleavage site at the S1, S2 junction,” said Ebright, referring to the place where two subunits of the spike protein meet. “And here is a proposal from the beginning of 2018, proposing explicitly to engineer that sequence at that position in chimeric lab-generated coronaviruses.”

While the grant proposal does not provide the smoking gun that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab, for some scientists it adds to the evidence that it might have. “Whether that particular study did or didn’t [lead to the pandemic], it certainly could have,” said Nunberg, of Montana Biotechnology Center. “Once you make an unnatural virus, you’re basically setting it up in an unstable evolutionary place. The virus is going to undergo a whole bunch of changes to try and cope with its imperfections. So who knows what will come of it.” The risks of such research are profound and irreversible, he said. “You can’t call back the virus once you release it into the environment.”
 

Buck

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i thought there was a short story around here, said DARPA paid 25 million, maybe more, towards this program...


my take-a-way was they were key proponents of the program...i just don't know anything anymore