Boston University (BU) has refuted what it has called “false and inaccurate” news regarding its scientists having developed a deadlier strain of COVID. The news, initially reported by the U.K.’s Daily Mail on Monday and later picked up by other news outlets, claimed that researchers at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) had developed a new COVID strain “with an 80 percent kill rate”. However, BU states that the news outlet has “sensationalized the message” and misrepresented the “purpose of the study” and what researchers actually found.
The science and other stuff to know
The research in question was described in a paper published online Friday and it is yet to be peer reviwed. In the study, a team of researchers from BU explained how they created a chimeric, or hybrid, version of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The study’s purpose was to determine which parts of the SARS-CoV-2 omicron variant determine the degree of sickness in those exposed to it. Scientists wanted to compare the original viral strain to the omicron strain to answer this question. To accomplish this, they took the spike protein from an omicron variant of SARS-2 and coupled it to a virus from the original strain, resulting in the chimeric virus.
Then, the team exposed a group of lab mice to samples of the hybrid virus. This killed 80 percent of the mice, showing that the chimeric virus was more lethal to this type of mice than the omicron strain. It is crucial to note, however, that the original viral strain from 2020 killed 100 percent of the mice it was exposed to in these experiments.
Following the study, the Daily Mail reported on Monday claiming that BU “created a new deadly Covid strain with an 80% kill rate”. Other outlets picked up the story and similarly misinterpreted the research, the BU statement explained. The Daily Mail report also alleged that the research employed a “gain of function” methodology, meaning the study altered the pathogens to make them more dangerous. But BU and NEIDL scientists have rejected the reporting.
“We want to address the false and inaccurate reporting about Boston University COVID-19 research, which appeared today in the Daily Mail,” a BU statement said. “First, this research is not gain-of-function research, meaning it did not amplify the Washington state SARS-CoV-2 virus strain or make it more dangerous. In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous.”
In the study, researchers concluded that it is other proteins, not the omicron spike protein, that cause the virus to spread so easily, stating that identifying such proteins will aid in the diagnosis and treatment of COVID. The 80 percent figure was “taken out of context for the purposes of sensationalism”, the NEIDL Director Ronald B. Corley explained.
Unfortunately, sensationalism in news reporting not only undermines the credibility of scientists working on cutting-edge, often possibly life-saving research, but it also causes users to lose trust in the media.
It also causes panic and anxiety among the general public and may add unneeded stress to people who are already dealing with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With BU stating that study was “reviewed and approved” by appropriate authorities for public safety procedures, due diligence on part of the paper before the publication of the news would have spared everyone the stress of anticipating another COVID outbreak.
According to the health-oriented news website STAT, however, the research has caused friction between the scientists conducting it and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which was one of the funders of the project. Emily Erbelding, Director of the NIAID’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, told STAT that the BU group’s previous grant applications did not specify that this specific investigation would be done.
In response, BU stated its research adhered to “all required regulatory obligations and protocols.” In accordance with these guidelines, BU did not have an obligation to disclose this research for two reasons: first, the experiments were carried out with funding provided by BU, and the NIAID didn’t directly fund the research. Second, because there was no gain-of-function involved, BU was not required to divulge the specifics of this research, the university said, as reported by Boston.
Corley said the purpose of the study was to ensure public safety not compromise 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,” he explained. “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.”