Our view concerning the emergence of the SARS virus

By Dr.Shigeo Honjo and Dr.Hideo Arai


We have already announced (in the paper published in the journal gTechnology and Human Beingsh in Japanese in June 2003) that we were thinking over the emergence of   the gSARS Virus.h After we finished publishing our paper on the theme at the end of May 2003, we thought that our paper was insufficient in that we could not refer to the information on the theme that has increased since our report was published. Nevertheless, even now we donft think it necessary to modify or change our way of thinking as a fundamental view.


Outbreak of SARS@as a typical example of biohazards

In the above-mentioned paper we thought that the outbreak of SARS was a typical example of biohazards. In our opinion, biohazards mean simply and clearly the ghazards to the health of human beings and domestic animals as well as the environment which were caused by naturally occurring pathogens and materials created by modern biotechnology. The characteristics of biohazards are listed below.

(1)It is difficult to detect the occurrence of infection immediately, and the hazards would be detected after damage happens.

(2)There appear no apparent diseases in some cases even though people have been infected with pathogens. In other words, there are examples of inapparent infections.

(3)There is a possibility that damage will not be limited to particular areas, but spread to all over the world across the borders.

(4)In the case of unknown pathogens, it is extremely difficult to isolate and identify them. In addition, it takes a lot of time to establish proper methods for diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

Thus, we can say that the outbreak of SARS at this time is a typical example of biohazards.

Why did the SARS virus appear suddenly? In answering this question, we must not disregard the hypothesis saying, gThe SARS virus may be a product of new biotechnology.h

WHO announced it has been confirmed that the pathogen of SARS is a new type of corona virus, expressing an opinion that the pathogen should be named gSARS virush. Even now, however, it is not clarified why such a new virus suddenly appeared.


Four hypotheses about the causes of the emergence of the SARS virus

We think that there are four hypotheses about the causes of the emergence of the SARS virus, a new type of corona virus. They are shown below.

(1)Common human-corona viruses able to cause mild infection may have mutated into   viruses with the ability to cause very severe infection.

(2)Corona viruses harboring in domestic animals or fowls as well as in wild animals may have become infectious with human beings and suddenly mutated into viruses able to cause diseases.

(3)Some kind of unknown corona viruses, which may have a symbiotic relation to a certain kind of feral animals or may have come to cause overt diseases to them, have invaded human society and displayed a very strong ability to cause SARS.

(4)New types of viruses, which have been artificially produced, intentionally or unintentionally, in the process of experiments with corona viruses conducted by using gene technology, may have escaped from laboratories into the environment and invaded human society, causing SARS.

We hope the readers will consider that the fourth is from the point of view which has been disregarded by virologists or scientists in the present main stream of science specializing in elucidation of the cause of infectious diseases or in public health. So it must be meaningful to examine the reality of the fourth hypothesis mentioned above.


Modification of genes of corona viruses are widely conducted in virus-related laboratories     

When we wrote a previous paper in gTechnology and Human Beingh in June 2003, we missed that a paper had been published on handling corona viruses by means of gene technology in the Journal of Virology ( vol.77, No.8, pp.4528`4538) in April 2003. The paper was written by a team led by Dr.B.J.Hijema, who belongs to the Institute of Viruses, Department of Veterinary Medicine of Utorecht Univercity in Holland.

The paper reports that they have succeeded in developing an effective method for manipulating a genome of feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV) which is a kind of   genus of corona virus, and that they also succeeded in changing the species tropism of corona virus (the nature of corona virus that a particular species of corona virus infects a particular host cell).

Dr.Hijema et al. first replaced a gene of the sugar-protein of spike structures on the surface of viral particles of FIPV with a spike gene of murine hepatitis virus, and produced recombinant viruses named mFIPV. This mFIPV could infect cells of mice and clearly multiplied, but, in feline cells, did not show the ability of infection and multiplication. Next, when they introduced a spike gene of FIPV into mFIPV, the ability of infection with and multiplication in feline cells recovered.

The paper of Dr.Hijema et al. clearly shows that, simply speaking, it is no longer a pipe dream to intentionally change innate nature (for example, pathogenicity and toxicity) of a certain virus by modifying the gene makeup of the viral genome. Therefore, the hypothesis that so-called SARS viruses may be an artificial product of genetic engineering is well worth considering. However, it would still be unwise to conclude that the SARS virus is an intentional product likely to be utilized as a biological weapon, because they may have been made unintentionally in the process of basic experiments related to corona virus or may have been produced as a result of experimental failures.

Moreover, it can be guessed from the paper by Dr.Hijema et al. that there are a considerable number of scientists studying corona viruses in the world. It is problematic, however, whether or not they firmly observe the rules for preventing biohazards. Generally speaking, scientists actively at work are unwilling to confess their failure, and apt to conceal it even when they notice that it is a failure because they are afraid that their failure might be known to and denounced by people. Taking this into consideration, we cannot deny, for example, the possibility that virulent recombinant viruses created by failed experiments will leak unnoticed from laboratories into a community. And it is natural that there are scientists in China who deal with corona viruses, using a technique of genetic engineering. So it is possible to think that their failure in conducting experiments has some relation to the emergence and spread of the SARS virus.

 Is it difficult to completely discard the hypothesis that the SARS virus may have been   produced as a biological weapon?

Dr. K Yamanouchi, a famous Japanese virologist, who is an emeritus professor of the University of Tokyo, asserts that the present virology has not yet made such progress as to create a new virus with a specific trait and that it is impossible to suppose that the SARS virus is an artificial product for bioterrorism (for example, please refer to his paper gCorrect Knowledge about SARSh in the Japanese monthly magazine gNewtonh August 2003, extra edition). However, the above-mentioned paper by Dr.Hijema et al. reports that they succeeded in changing a genome makeup intentionally with an aim at a targeted gene. Also in Japan, there is a scientist who does not modify genes, but creates a chimeric virus (SHIV) of a simian immuno-deficiency virus (SIV) and a human immuno-deficiency virus(HIV), using cellular engineering and conducts infection experiments with nonhuman primates, using this new chimeric virus.

By the way, the view that SARS virus is a product created for developing biological weapons is not originated from a Russian scientist. In addition, intelligent agencies of America and Canada seem to have the same view (refer to the page 227 of the book gThe terror of SARS from Chinah (in Japanese) by Ko Bunyuu, Kobunsha Publishing Company, June 2003). Kofs book points out that in China there is a special facility for developing biological weapons possessed by Peoplefs Liberation Army in Canton.

Thinking about this gcircumstantial evidence,h would it be impossible to erase a suspicion that the SARS virus was (or is) manufactured by manipulating genes of corona viruses in China? It takes a lot of time to grasp the truth because the truth may be concealed behind the hard wall of Chinafs state secrets. So we should recognize that at the present stage, we can neither reject nor accept the hypothesis that the SARS virus may have been produced as a biological weapon. 


We have a somewhat affirmative point of view over the hypothesis that the SARS virus may have emerged as a result of gene technology. However, we should not hurriedly conclude without much thought and consideration as to whether or not this virus is a product of the intentional development of biological weapons. This paper is a summary of our way of thinking. Meanwhile, extremely shocking is the view of Dr.Horowitz, a sociologist and political scientist, (in gConspiracy Planeth, June 19, 2003), that gthe SARS viral attack is an ingenious social experiment featuring institutionalized bioterrorism for widespread psycho-social control. We think, however, this view is lacking in persuasive power because it provides little concrete evidence, only based on a series of speculation.

Though public reports on SARS have recently decreased rapidly in number, the thorough disclosure of information on the side of China is indispensable to truly clarify the serious problems concerning SARS.