Why are Boston University scientists experimenting with even deadlier Covid strain?

Academic institution hits back at reports that it created a variant with an 80 per cent kill rate — but the debate over risky lab work continues

Scientists at Boston University are experimenting with various strains of the coronavirus on mice. AP
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Scientists at Boston University have developed a form of coronavirus that killed 80 per cent of the mice they tested it on — reigniting the debate over the use of experimental lab research involving deadly pathogens.

Amid the furore, the university hit back at “false and inaccurate” media coverage that “sensationalised” the research.

It insisted that the experiments did not result in the creation of a more virulent form of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

The researchers were interested in whether the Omicron variant really was less pathogenic than the original form of coronavirus.

Without it we wouldn’t have half the antivirals or vaccines we do have.
Prof Paul Digard, University of Edinburgh

It was not, the university said, “gain-of-function” research, which are studies in which scientists create a more dangerous form of a pathogen, such as bacteria or viruses, for research purposes.

While Boston University officials criticised the media, the coverage highlighted concerns that date back many years over laboratory research on pathogens.

Prof Paul Digard, chairman of the virology department at the University of Edinburgh in the UK, said it was “absolutely beyond doubt” that studies on genetically modified viruses were “more than justified”.

“Without it, we wouldn’t have half the antivirals or vaccines we do have,” said Prof Digard, whose lab at the university’s Roslin Institute “makes mutant flu viruses routinely”, although these are not necessarily more harmful forms.

“It is vital to make mutant viruses to understand how they work. If you don’t understand them, it is much harder to design an intervention.”

Bird flu experiments

In the US, a funding ban on certain gain-of-function research in place under former president Barack Obama was lifted under his successor Donald Trump.

Undertaken by researchers in the US and the Netherlands, the work involved making the H5N1 bird flu virus more transmissible in mammals, something that could potentially lead to the virus’s spread between people.

Prof Digard, who was not connected to the studies, insisted such research could offer valuable information.

For example, by knowing which mutations make H5N1 more transmissible in mammals, scientists are better able to assess whether bird flu spreading among poultry could subsequently pass from person to person.

Such research is carried out at a high-security level.

“The important thing is that people who do the work think about what they’re doing. Nobody does this just for the sake of it,” he said.

'There have been lab accidents'

A incident in 2014 involving anthrax at the Centres for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, was among the most high-profile lab accidents in recent years. AFP

Among the academics concerned about some gain-of-function research is Prof Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University in the US.

In 2018, shortly after the US government's lifting of its moratorium on funding some gain-of-function research, he said that he and others were worried “that human error could lead to the accidental release of a virus that has been enhanced in the lab so that it is more deadly or more contagious than it already is”.

“There have already been accidents involving pathogens,” he said in an interview published by Harvard University.

“For example, in 2014, dozens of workers at a US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention lab were accidentally exposed to anthrax that was improperly handled.

“Another accident like that — if it involved a virus that was both newly created and highly contagious — has the potential to jeopardise [the lives of] millions of people.”

He said questions about what makes flu viruses more transmissible could be answered by experiments that used parts of the virus, rather than the whole live virus, and by comparisons of genetic sequences.

However, Soren Holm, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said there are “good reasons for performing gain-of-function studies”.

But while there are internationally recognised biosafety levels that labs have to adhere to when handling potentially dangerous material, Prof Holm cautioned that “you can never say” an accident could not happen.

Another concern sometimes expressed about gain-of-function research, he said, was that the knowledge could be misused, such as for terrorist purposes.

“There’s lots of speculation about this but, as far as I know, there has never been any effective bioterrorist attack,” he said.

While the recent Boston University research generated interest in the media, the coverage is dwarfed by the thousands of articles speculating on the possible laboratory origin of Sars-CoV-2.

Speculation centres on whether the virus, which emerged in Wuhan in China late 2019, came from a “wet market” selling wild animals or from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has carried out research on coronaviruses.

A 2015 paper in the journal Nature, written by scientists from the institute, described work to genetically engineer coronaviruses and said: “Our work suggests a potential risk of Sars-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.”

Nature added a note to the paper saying that the article was “being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19 was engineered” and that there was “no evidence that this is true”.

Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases specialist and professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia in the UK, said the true origin of Sars-CoV-2 would “never be proved 100 per cent, either way”.

However, he said the evidence was “very strongly against it being a lab escape”.

“Covid is almost certainly down to the illegal wildlife trade in China and not to a lab leak,” he said.

Updated: October 19, 2022, 9:22 AM