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Lab-Generated ‘Lethal’ COVID Strain? Boston University Has An Explanation, Calls Media Reports ‘Misleading’

Team had reportedly created a new COVID strain that has an 80 percent kill rate among the mice on whom the strain was administered

As per the researchers, the media reports have "sensationalized the message, they misrepresent the study and its goals in its entirety."

Written by Kashish Sharma |Updated : October 19, 2022 2:50 PM IST

An experiment on the COVID-19 variant has recently caused some outrage globally, prompting the researchers to respond to the accusations made. The experiment was performed by a research team from Boston University at their National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) where the team had reportedly created a new COVID strain that has an 80 percent kill rate among the mice to whom the strain was administered. While some media reports called it "lethal", the university has refuted the allegations, calling them "false and inaccurate".

The outrage was prompted by a fear that the accidental release of the virus could lead to dangerous situations. There have been other theories claiming that similar research on bats in Wuhan laboratories contributed to the spread of the coronavirus outbreak in 2019. Reportedly, the reports have sparked controversy and caused some friction between the university and the government. The researchers have claimed that in experiments such as these, potential risks are weighed against the benefits.

What was the experiment?

As per some experts, researchers sometimes create more virulent pathogens to understand the severity of the disease they can cause and to determine the reaction of therapeutic drugs against them. In this case, as per the researchers, the aim was to understand the difference between the Omicron variant and the earlier deadlier COVID strains when both were similarly attacking the cells but the former caused less severe illness.

In the experiment, a part of Omicron's surface protein or spike protein was added to the genome of an earlier COVID-19 variant, also called the Washington variant that was discovered soon after the pandemic made its presence in Wuhan. The hybrid strain administered to mice had killed 80 per cent of them.

"In mice, while Omicron causes mild, non-fatal infection, the Omicron S-carrying virus inflicts severe disease with a mortality rate of 80 per cent," read the research paper. Reportedly, the original variant when administered alone to the mice had killed 100 per cent of them. Hence, the hybrid created was not virulent and deadlier than the earlier variants.

Is it like playing with fire?

Reportedly, as per some experts, the experiment is like playing with fire and could facilitate the spread of a lab-driven pandemic. Some have also accused the researchers of not including community consent while experimenting.

University comes to defense

The researchers have refuted the accusations made by the media reports and have called them false and misleading. As per the researchers, the media reports have "sensationalized the message, they misrepresent the study and its goals in its entirety." As per the researchers, the hybrid variant did not amplify the Washington variant or make it more dangerous. They also clarified that the animal model chosen for the experiment were of a certain kind who were highly susceptible and were more severely affected by the old Washington variant than the new one.

Research found something

As per Saeed, the University's Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine assistant professor of biochemistry, the findings of the research are consistent with other studies of a similar kind and show that Omicron's pathogenicity is not determined by spike protein but by other viral proteins. As per the scientist, determining these viral proteins can lead to better diagnostics and disease management strategies.

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