The lab team behind the mutant variant was accused of “playing with fire”.
Scientists at Boston University claim to have created a new variant of Covid-19 with an 80% mortality rate, by combining the highly-transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus with the original Wuhan strain. The research, which echoes experiments thought to have created the virus in the first place, has caused outrage.
In a research paper published last week, the scientists explained that they isolated the spike protein of the Omicron variant and combined it with the “backbone” of the original strain that circulated in early 2020. This created a virus that “robustly escapes vaccine-induced…immunity” and inflicts “serious disease” on laboratory mice, 80% of whom died during testing, the paper stated.
While the team admitted that their mutant strain would likely be less deadly in humans than mice, they found that it produced five times as many virus particles in lab-grown human lung cells when compared to the Omicron variant.
The paper has yet to be peer reviewed.
News of the research caused outrage online, as it is widely believed that similar ‘gain-of-function’ research – a term describing the alteration of a pathogen to enhance its potency – at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China led to the global Covid-19 pandemic. The US funded such research at the Wuhan Institute, although it is still unclear whether the specific coronavirus that caused the pandemic originated in the lab.
“This should be totally forbidden, it’s playing with fire,” former Israel Institute for Biological Research head Shmuel Shapira said of the Boston experiments. “How many times did virologists say they were not making chimeric SARS viruses more deadly? How many???” reporter Paul Thaker tweeted.
The Boston team aren’t the only scientists returning to potentially dangerous research in the aftermath of the pandemic. EcoHealth Alliance, the private company responsible for much of the Wuhan Institute’s pre-2020 gain-of-function research, was awarded a $650,000 grant by the US last month to study “the potential for future bat coronavirus emergence in Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.”