University's COVID Study Causes a Ruckus

Boston University makes hybrid version in lab, and federal agency is surprised to learn of it
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 18, 2022 12:29 PM CDT
University's COVID Study Causes a Ruckus
This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles that cause COVID-19.   (NIAID-RML via AP)

Researchers at Boston University have a COVID controversy on their hands. As Mass Live reports, scientists there created a hybrid version of the virus in the lab in order to better understand the omicron variant. The experiment resulted in what the university calls inaccurate and sensationalized media coverage—particularly at the UK's Daily Mail. That outlet's story highlighted one aspect of the study to suggest that BU scientists had created a new strain of COVID with a "kill rate" of 80%. Not so, the university says in a statement to the Boston Herald, calling the interpretation in the Daily Mail a gross misrepresentation of the work.

However, the resulting controversy caught the attention of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which was surprised to learn that the university had created a hybrid strain, reports STAT News. The NIAID funded the experiment, but an official there says BU didn't specify the precise nature of the work in its grant applications. "I think we're going to have conversations over upcoming days," NIAID official Emily Erbelding tells STAT. There's no indication that BU scientists conducted an unsafe experiment, but "we wish that they would have" informed the agency in advance, says Erbelding. Had that happened, the experiment likely would have been presented to a special agency committee for approval, she adds.

As for the study itself, which hasn't yet been peer-reviewed, researchers "took the spike protein of an omicron variant of the virus and attached it to a virus of the original strain that spread around the world in 2020," explains The idea was to better understand why the omicron variant results in less-severe infections. The resulting hybrid virus killed 80% of mice infected with it, which means it's deadlier than the naturally occurring omicron variant but less deadly than the original 2020 strain, which killed 100% of mice. (The fatality rates for humans are nowhere near those levels.)

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In its statement criticizing the "false and inaccurate" media coverage, the university pushed back against the assertion it had created a dangerous new strain. "First, this research is not gain-of-function research, meaning it did not amplify the Washington state SARS-CoV-2 virus strain (original virus from 2020) or make it more dangerous," said the statement. "In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous." A virologist not involved with the study cuts the BU researchers some slack, telling STAT that the federal rules for such experiments are ambiguous. (More COVID-19 stories.)

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