Health

BU researchers create hybrid COVID virus, causing friction with the government

The lab-made virus combined elements of the omicron variant with the original virus. The results were more deadly to mice than omicron, but less deadly than the original virus.

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which cause COVID-19. Hannah A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Associated Press

Recent research conducted by Boston University scientists involving a hybrid version of the COVID-19 virus is causing a stir in the scientific community. The work seemingly caught one of the research’s primary funding sources off guard, and has generated headlines alleging that the researchers created a more lethal version of COVID-19. 

A paper containing this research was published online Friday. This is a preprint, however, meaning that it has not yet been peer-reviewed. 

This work, conducted at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, revolves around the creation of a chimeric, or hybrid virus.

Scientists 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. The goal was to study why omicron has a lower rate of severe infections. 

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The new, fused virus was then compared to naturally-occurring omicron virus samples. This was done to determine whether the mutations in the omicron spike protein were what caused omicron’s lower levels of severity and increased ability to evade immunity. 

However, the hybrid virus created by BU’s researchers still killed 80% of the lab mice infected with it, making it more deadly than the natural omicron variants. It is crucial to note that the original virus killed 100% of the lab mice exposed to it. 

In the end, researchers concluded that the mutations of the omicron spike protein allow the variant to evade immunity, but are not the cause of omicron’s decreased severity. 

This research is reportedly causing friction between the scientists conducting it and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which helped fund the work. Director of NIAID’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Emily Erbelding told STAT that the BU group’s original grant applications did not clarify that this specific work would be done. The BU researchers also did not make clear in their progress reports to NIAID that their experiments could enhance a pathogen of pandemic potential, STAT reported.

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Asked if the BU researchers should have told NIAID of their desire to do this work, Erbelding reportedly replied “We wish that they would have, yes.”

She also told STAT that NIAID would have “conversations over upcoming days” with the BU team. 

NIAID policy dictates that any proposals to conduct research that could produce enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential should be referred to a committee that then analyzes the risks and benefits of such work. This policy is called a P3CO framework, according to STAT. 

“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,” Erbelding told STAT. 

BU pushed back against media reports that characterized this work as making COVID-19 more deadly. 

“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,” the university said in a statement to The Boston Herald. “In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous.”

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