Following reports that researchers with Boston University have created a new, deadly hybrid strain of Covid-19 with an 80 percent kill rate in lab mice, researchers are refuting this, calling it “false and inaccurate.”
Researchers at the University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) refuted claims that the research was “gain-of-function,” and that it was a more dangerous strain, saying that they in fact created a less dangerous strain.
Ronald B Corley, NEIDL director BU Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine chair of microbiology, said of reports that they had created a more deadly strain, “They’ve sensationalized the message, they misrepresent the study and its goals in its entirety.”
The research centered around spike proteins on the Omicron variant, with researchers comparing this variant against the original strain.
Corley said they wanted to find out if the virus was less severe “simply because it wasn’t infecting the same cells as the initial strain.” They were “interested in what part of the virus dictates how serious of a disease a person will get.”
Noting the line about this hybrid strain having an 80 percent kill rate, Corley said, “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. Whereas Omicron causes a very mild disease in these animals.”
“This was a statement taken out of context for the purposes of sensationalism,” said Corley, “and it totally misrepresents not only the findings, but [also] the purpose of the study.”
BU said in a statement that “this research mirrors and reinforces the findings of other, similar research performed by other organizations, including the FDA.”
NEIDL also responded to concerns that their research was not properly vetted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“The experiments reported in this manuscript were carried out with funds from Boston University,” the statement reads. “NIAID funding was acknowledged because it was used to help develop the tools and platforms that were used in this research; they did not fund this research directly. NIH funding was also acknowledged for a shared instrumentation grant that helped support the pathology studies. We believe that funding streams for tools do not require an obligation to report.”
A spokesperson for the National Institute of Health said in a statement to WGBH that the NIAID did not review or fund the experiment, adding that the NIH is reviewing the matter to determine if the research met the standards for review.
Regarding concerns over lab safety, following the theory that Covid-19 had leaked from a lab in China, BU stated that “All studies are conducted in a biosafety cabinet, with researchers having to enter their workspace through a series of interlocked doors. All floors and walls are sealed, and the lab is fitted with sophisticated filtration and decontamination technology. And if the researchers had seen anything untoward during the study, they would have immediately shut it down and reported it.”
“We take our safety and security of how we handle pathogens seriously, and the virus does not leave the laboratory in which it’s being studied,” says Corley. “Our whole goal is for the public’s health. And this study was part of that, finding what part of the virus is responsible for causing severe disease. If we can understand that, we can then develop the tools that we need to develop better therapeutics.”