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Lab Version of COVID-19 Virus Sparks Controversy

SARS-CoV-2 Virus that causes COVID19
Lab version of Covid-19 virus sparks controversy. Credit: Rawpixel Ltd CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Scientists from Boston University have created a lab version of the COVID-19 virus consisting of the Omicron variant, sparking controversy in the scientific community.

Although results from the hybrid virus proved more deadly upon test on mice than omicron, it was less deadly than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus by at least twenty percent.

According to BU lab findings, the hybrid virus still killed eighty percent of the lab mice infected with it. This makes it deadlier than the original omicron variant. It is worth noting, nevertheless, that the original virus killed one hundred percent of the lab mice exposed to it.

The findings by BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) were published online on October 14th on the preprint database bioRxiv. Yet, it is still to undergo peer-reviewed.

Hybrid Virus More Lethal Than the Original Omicron Variant

The now controversial and eye-brow raising research, seemingly caught the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) off guard. This despite the fact that it is one of its primary funding sources. According to reports, the problem was a lack of clarity from the get-go.

The team properly conducted the study in a biosecurity level 3 laboratory. An internal biosafety review committee as well as Boston’s Public Health Commission had also approved it. Nonetheless, it generated headlines alleging that researchers had created a more lethal version of COVID-19.

Emily Erbelding is the Director of NIAID’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. In response to the controversy, she stated that the BU group’s original grant applications did not clarify the specific details of their work. Neither did their progress reports indicate an enhancement to a pathogen of pandemic potential (ePPP).

When asked if the BU researchers should have told them of their plan, Erbelding replied “We wish that they would have, yes.” She further added that they would have “conversations over upcoming days” with the BU team.

NIAID policy on ePPP type infectious research

NIAID policy requires researches to refer any proposals to conduct research that could produce enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential to a committee.  That committee then analyses the risks and benefits of such work, which they call a P3CO framework.

Erbelding said, “What we would have wanted to do is to talk about exactly what they wanted to do in advance, and if it met what the P3CO framework defines as enhanced pathogen of pandemic potential, ePPP, we could have put a package forward for review by the committee that’s convened by HHS, the office of the assistant secretary for preparedness and response. That’s what the framework lays out and that’s what we would have done.”

However, she stated that the mistake may have emerged from an ambiguity in the P3CO framework’s rules. For a virus to be defined as an ePPP, the expectation has to be that it will produce pandemic potential results in humans. Anticipating that claim, the researchers stated that the mice used for the study had not seemed a close enough analogue.

Scientists’ goal was to study how Omicron virus evades immunity

According to BU’s scientists, their goal was to study why omicron has a lower rate of severe infections. To do so, they took the spike protein of an omicron variant and attached it to an original strain of the virus.

The hybrid virus was then compared to naturally-occurring omicron virus samples. This enabled them to determine whether the mutations in the omicron spike protein  had caused omicron’s lower levels of severity and increased ability to evade immunity. The BU team then concluded it had not.

They research team has pushed back against media reports claiming they created a more dangerous variant than the original COVID-19.

In a statement, the university said, “First, this research is not gain-of-function research, meaning it did not amplify the Washington state SARS-COV-2 virus strain (the original virus from 2020) or make it more dangerous.” She also noted that “in fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous.”

Generally, the lab work done at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories involves the creation of a chimeric or hybrid virus.

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