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.

19 thoughts on “Controversy Over Boston COVID Research”

  1. Okay, this doesn’t was. I’ve worked in the top labs in the country, and at NBC facilities! The lab at Boston university is not even Level 5. It’s more like a Level 3/4, and they’ve been caught weaponizing Covid; achieving an 80% Kill Rate. And they did this without permission. They are partially on the Taxpayer dime, but any work with a Pandemic Level Pathogen requires systematic oversight. I worked at Level 3 and Level 5 labs and I’ll just point out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was supposedly a Level 5 facility – yet their release caused the current world pandemic! That is, assuming it wasn’t released intentionally…

    • You worked in such labs and institutions yet your claim that the virus leaked from the lab is unsubstantiated. Since you are familiar with the scientific method please provide peer-reviewed references to back your claims.

  2. There’s an awful lot of captions that can go with that photo. Three researchers in suits grinning gleefully.

    Come to think of it, where are their masks? Gotta be safe!

  3. “80% fatality rate against the Wuhan variety (for some reason called “Washington” instead)”

    Probably because the funders of this research think Covid originated in Washington if you get my drift.

  4. Your statement:
    “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.”
    is not correct.
    It is an unverified hypothesis and it is not widely accepted by the scientific community.

    • The idea that COVID came from some inter-species crossover is also unverified conjecture which is not universally accepted among the scientific community. Certainly, the fact that the outbreak began in the very city where the Wuhan Virology Institute was located, of all places, seems very suspicious.

      If there’s a radioactive contamination disaster at the site of a nuclear plant, it’s rather fatuous to then argue to me that the contamination instead came from a radioactive meteor from outer space which merely coincidentally happened to crash at the nuclear plant, of all places. The coincidence factor is too strong.

      • The balance of evidence heavily favors the inter species cross over hypothesis which is why the scientific community backs it. The rest of society will make up their own fictions based on their preconceptions, as happens with climate, a flat earth, the moon landing etc etc.

        These scientists are doing everyone a favor by investigating how Covid works. There is no gain of function work here and that should be obvious to anyone which half a brain.

        • How would you know what the scientific community backs or doesn’t back? It has been political polonium-210 since early feb 2020 to even mention the lab leak theory after a group of researchers who are the who’s who of gain of function research did pre-emptive damage control. It was widely banned across all social media etc. All attempts to investigate it while the potential crime scene was still hot were rebuffed. China behaved like Russia after Chernobyl.

          Combining different parts of different strains of COVID is creating new strains with unknown properties. That’s the whole point. That’s also extremely dangerous. What do you say if you accidentally make a much more dangerous variant of COVID with the lethality of the original strain and the infectiousness of omicron? This is in fact what they attempted to do and partially succeeded in doing as the spike was not the only determinant of lethality.

        • It is not true that the balance of probability favors the animal transference, simply the majority of the “expert” opinion lines up that way. If you actually look at the evidence in favor of both, there is much more on the side of the lab leak theory.

      • If you build a research center to study the effects of radioactive fallout in areas regularly struck by radioactive meteors it is not necessarily reasonable to assume that the radiation comes from the lab and not from the meteors.
        Virology and veterinary institutes tend to study pathogens and the carriers of pathogens that are relevant in the area/nation. You do not have a lot of labs studying rattlesnakes and developing antidotes to rattlesnake poison where there are no rattlesnakes. The same is true for ebola in certain and was the same for coronavirus.

    • No, it’s 99.93%+ clear the CV-19 virus was made in a lab. There are regularly-spaced restriction-enzyme binding sites throughout its genome, spitting it up into sections that can be easily assembled. Wild viruses don’t have that pattern at all.

      Endonuclease fingerprint indicates a synthetic origin of SARS-CoV-2

      Lay Summary To construct synthetic variants of natural coronaviruses in the lab, researchers often use a method called in vitro genome assembly. This method utilizes special enzymes called restriction enzymes to generate DNA building blocks that then can be “stitched” together in the correct order of the viral genome. To make a virus in the lab, researchers usually engineer the viral genome to add and remove stitching sites, called restriction sites. The ways researchers modify these sites can serve as fingerprints of in vitro genome assembly.

      We found that SARS-CoV has the restriction site fingerprint that is typical for synthetic viruses. The synthetic fingerprint of SARS-CoV-2 is anomalous in wild coronaviruses, and common in lab-assembled viruses. The type of mutations (synonymous or silent mutations) that differentiate the restriction sites in SARS-CoV-2 are characteristic of engineering, and the concentration of these silent mutations in the restriction sites is extremely unlikely to have arisen by random evolution. Both the restriction site fingerprint and the pattern of mutations generating them are extremely unlikely in wild coronaviruses and nearly universal in synthetic viruses. Our findings strongly suggest a synthetic origin of SARS-CoV2.

  5. The fact that the media took a story about a super weak population of mice being infected in a super concentration of the virus and portrayed it as a story about a super strong virus does not surprise me in the least. The media is selling a product and the product is manufactured to sell. That product is not the truth.

  6. I saw force this research off planet.
    That will force big pharma to fund new space whether they want to or not.

  7. Brian, you made the same out-of-context mistake in your 1st sentence. If I understood their explanation correctly, they did not “made a version of COVID that kills 80% of mice” – those mice were 80% susceptible to begin with, to the original strain.

  8. Ok, so it seems that the point they make is that they are using special mice who have an 80% fatality rate against the Wuhan variety (for some reason called “Washington” instead) and that they have gone through a thorough protocol to assess the risks beforehand. It would have been nice if they had linked the relevant documentation of that thorough risk assessment, however. Of course, I am not a microbiologist and could not necessarily make heads or tails of the process, but I am sure there are many knowledgeable people who would be very interested in going through these with a fine-toothed comb, as it were.

    I am aware, of course, that posting this kind of comment in a site which is not affiliated with BU actually accomplishes nothing, but I am commenting anyway.

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