'It's playing with fire': Boston University scientists blasted for creating lethal new Covid strain in lab

The team has been accused of making a hybrid virus, combining Omicron and the original Wuhan strain, that killed 80 percent of mice in a study

'It's playing with fire': Boston University scientists blasted for creating lethal new Covid strain in lab
Boston University scientists have been criticized after they allegedly created a lethal hybrid Covid strain in a laboratory (Representational image by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)
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BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: Boston University scientists have been blasted after they allegedly created a lethal new Covid strain in a laboratory. The team has been accused of making a hybrid virus, combining Omicron and the original Wuhan strain, that killed 80 percent of mice in a study. This sheds light on how such dangerous virus manipulation research continues despite the fact that it is claimed similar practices may have started the pandemic. "This should be totally forbidden, it's playing with fire," said professor Shmuel Shapira, a leading scientist in the Israeli government, according to the Daily Mail

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"The research is a clear example of gain of function research," Dr Richard Ebright, a chemist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said. "'If we are to avoid a next lab-generated pandemic, it is imperative that oversight of enhanced potential pandemic pathogen research be strengthened," he added.

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The new research, which has not been peer-reviewed, involved a team of researchers from Boston and Florida extracting Omicron's spike protein, a structure that binds to and invades human cells. Researchers then attached the spike to the original wildtype strain that first emerged in Wuhan when the pandemic began and looked at how mice reacted to the new hybrid strain compared to the original Omicron variant.

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A similar group of rodents that were exposed to the standard Omicron strain survived, with only one experiencing "mild" symptoms. Writing in the paper, they said, "In...mice, while Omicron causes mild, non-fatal infection, the Omicron S-carrying virus inflicts severe disease with a mortality rate of 80 percent." The spike protein, researchers said, is responsible for infectivity. Changes to other parts of its structure determine how deadly it is.

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"The research is a clear example of gain of function research of concern and enhanced potential pandemic pathogen (ePPP) research," Ebright said. "It is especially concerning that this new US-government ePPP research - like the previous US-government ePPP research on chimeric SARS-related coronaviruses at Wuhan Institute of Virology that may have caused the pandemic - appears not to have undergone the prior risk-benefit review mandated under US-government policies."

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"If we are to avoid a next lab-generated pandemic, it is imperative that oversight of ePPP research be strengthened," Ebright added. "It is imperative that the existing polices mandating prior risk-benefit assessment of ePPP research be followed, and it is imperative that officials at US-government agencies who repeatedly have placed the public at risk by repeatedly violating the existing policies be held accountable."

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Prof David Livermore, a professor of microbiology at the UK's University of East Anglia, said, "Given the strong likelihood that the Covid pandemic originated from the escape of a lab-manipulated coronavirus in Wuhan, these experiments seem profoundly unwise."

The lab, located at Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, is one of 13 biosafety level 4 labs in the US. These labs have the authority to handle the most dangerous pathogens, with experiments that involve tinkering with animal viruses to advance treatments and vaccines that could be used if there is an outbreak in the future. 

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