Controversy Over Boston COVID Research

Researchers at the University of Boston have made a version of COVID that kills 80% of mice and it has immune escape.

Boston University has a defense. BU said its research should not be considered “gain of function” because “it did not amplify the Washington state SARS-CoV-2 virus strain or make it more dangerous.” They say they used mice that are easily killed by any kind of COVID.

Corley says the line pulled out of context actually had nothing to do with the virus’ effect on humans. The study began in a tissue culture, then moved to an animal model.

“The animal model that was used was a particular type of mouse that is highly susceptible, and 80 to 100 percent of the infected mice succumb to disease from the original strain, the so-called Washington strain,” says Corley. “Whereas Omicron causes a very mild disease in these animals.”

That 80 percent number is what the media reports latched onto, misrepresenting the study and its goals.

“This was a statement taken out of context for the purposes of sensationalism,” says Corley, “and it totally misrepresents not only the findings, but [also] the purpose of the study.”

In fact, according to BU’s statement, “this research mirrors and reinforces the findings of other, similar research performed by other organizations, including the FDA.” That’s supported by one of the lead researchers on the study, Mohsan Saeed, a NEIDL investigator.

“Consistent with studies published by others, this work shows that it is not the spike protein that drives Omicron pathogenicity, but instead other viral proteins,” says Saeed, a BU Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine assistant professor of biochemistry. “Determination of those proteins will lead to better diagnostics and disease management strategies.”

Researchers added Omicron’s spike protein to the original Wuhan Covid strain.

Professor Shmuel Shapira, a leading scientist in the Israeli Government, said: ‘This should be totally forbidden, it’s playing with fire.’

Gain of function research – when viruses are purposefully manipulated to be more infectious or deadly – is thought to be at the center of Covid’s origin.

Journal Science Reviews the Controversy

Journal Science has this discussion.

What are critics of the study saying?
They question the scientific value of the study and argue its potential risks and benefits were not properly reviewed before it took place.

Under current U.S. government policy, any proposal to conduct a federally funded experiment that is “reasonably anticipated” to make an already highly virulent and transmissible virus more dangerous is supposed to get a special review. BU has said the experiment didn’t meet that criterion. Some researchers, however, believe it does. They note that although the new hybrid was less lethal to mice than the original Washington variant, it is likely more transmissible.

Some scientists also question the study’s relevance to protecting human health. They note that findings made in mice often do not translate to humans. Given such limitations, the argument for doing this work “generally doesn’t feel overly convincing to me,” tweeted virologist Francois Balloux of University College London.

Some researchers also feel the public should have a greater say in such work. Gene therapy researcher Alina Chan of the Broad Institute, an outspoken critic of GOF research, called the study “a bit worrying to me” because she fears the impact if the hybrid virus leaked into Boston, where she lives.

What are the counterarguments?
The study was “far less alarming” than some suggest, tweeted virologist Stuart Neil of King’s College London, emphasizing that the hybrid virus was less lethal than the original Washington state strain.

It was also tested in mice that are “exquisitely sensitive” to SARS-CoV-2 because they have been engineered so their lung cells are packed with the receptor that SARS-CoV-2 uses to break into human cells, Neil noted. The scientists forced a huge amount of virus up the noses of the mice, far more than a person would typically encounter. As a result, the mouse mortality rate of 80% was far higher than the human mortality from the original SARS-CoV-2 variant, which is about 1% or less.

Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, believes the experiment is less concerning because similar hybrid SARS-CoV-2 variants have already emerged naturally and later faded into the background. One such naturally emerging virus, for example, featured the Omicron spike protein on a Delta strain backbone. “Mother Nature did it already a while ago IN HUMANS and nobody cared,” he tweeted.

What’s next?
The dust-up is sure to add impetus to an ongoing review of the federal oversight policy for risky GOF research by a panel called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). In September, an NSABB task force issued a draft report that recommended the review policy be expanded to sweep in some kinds of research, and some pathogens, that are now exempt. And experts on all sides of the GOF debate have said the criteria for review need to be clearer. The government is expected to release new rules as early as next year.

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