Bacteria infecting labs: From amazing to frustrating

Written by Erin Shannon, CNN Vienna, Austria

The more than 2,000 individuals who have fallen ill with laboratory-confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the last two years may have been unlucky by chance, and scientists are actively trying to find out.

Recently, one lab was able to isolate RNA from the virus, which may allow it to be shared with more sophisticated DNA databases.

But when it comes to finding new viruses, that’s almost never the case, as recent statistics show.

The last time a new coronavirus was isolated was more than 40 years ago, in 1977, and others have sporadically emerged over the last decade — but no real new cases since the 2012 first known case of MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus).

Global health authorities have credited that mid-2013 virus, which initially infected seven people in Saudi Arabia , with bringing surveillance of potential infectious diseases to the forefront.

“Viruses are extremely hard to isolate,” says Tomasz Peschel of the Virus Research Centre at Warsaw University, one of the world’s leading coronavirus research centers.

“However, after the discovery of MERS, some of the challenges faced by the field of coronavirus research have been reduced significantly.”

More isolated

Last year, 60 or so researchers from some of the world’s leading laboratories, such as Health Canada and the Pasteur Institute in France, took part in a National Bio-defense Facility in Ames, Iowa, where H5N1 avian influenza has previously been isolated.

In return, they were provided with access to world-class coronavirus handling equipment, which helps them more readily isolate viruses as they’re growing in nature.

According to the H5N1 Department at Iowa State University, this marked “a historic first as researchers had never been treated to this level of cell culture preparation for coronaviruses.”

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Sections of the coronavirus genome have also been sequenced, forming a kind of library — a repository of viral information which many researchers can access and analyze.

However, this library of 1.3 million genetic mutations is nothing like a bar code. In contrast, a bar code describes a physical object — a machine or a file — that can be scanned to access that information.

The bar code library represents no such asset for coronaviruses, which require a process of mutation initiation and propagation that is much more distant from the process used for biological bar codes.

And that’s where immunizing the herd is key

Germontavirus is a system of DNA that codes for a protein. Using barcodes is a simple, non-invasive technique used in business, medical and scientific settings.

Bar coding is often used in “prophylactic” medicine, where targeted alteration of DNA is designed to increase its ability to track and neutralize pathogens that cause contagious and damaging infections.

It would be so easy to genetically disable the influenza-causing virus and non-human coronavirus, for example, that the total efficacy of the potential vaccine could be eliminated.

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