How Do We Know If a Virus Is Bioengineered?
Detecting bioengineering is a fraught task for any organism
Almost as soon as the coronavirus appeared in the news, so too did speculation that it was purposefully engineered, the result of experimentation at one of several Wuhan laboratories. The idea that the virus, whether natural or engineered, came from a scientific facility was pushed by some politicians. The White House reportedly pressured spy agencies to look into lab links.
Most scientists agree, based on the virus’s genetics, that it probably hopped from animals to humans. On April 30, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence declared, on behalf of the 17 different organizations that make up the U.S. intelligence community, that “the Covid-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” The organizations decided to continue investigating two alternatives: the more likely explanation that the virus jumped from an animal to a human, and the more remote possibility that it was a natural virus released in a lab accident, which still hasn’t been ruled out.
So, the U.S.’s spy sector “concurs with the wide scientific consensus,” as the statement put it, that the virus wasn’t created by people. But how did its people come to that conclusion? While the full scope of its investigation isn’t known, one program within the intelligence community, FELIX, did specifically investigate the hypothesis. FELIX’s analysis revealed that the virus hadn’t been engineered using “foreign” genetic sequences, indicating that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was not man-made or engineered using pieces of other organisms.
But detecting “bioengineering” is a fraught task for any organism. Just as there are many ways to determine whether a virus was engineered, there are many ways to engineer a virus, leading to a constant tug of war — and a lot of uncertainty.
FELIX stands for Finding Engineering-Linked Indicators, and it’s run by IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. IARPA does high-risk research and develops next-next-gen technology under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In 2018, FELIX began funding six external teams to develop tools that can detect the fingerprints of bioengineering. These genetic signs…