A research team from Boston University has caused controversy for work involving the creation of a hybrid SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Researchers from Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories conducted a study1 to create a chimeric virus which combined the spike protein of the Omicron variant with the initial Wuhan strain of Covid-19.
The idea behind the study was to investigate the role of the Omicron spike and assess whether mutations in the Omicron spike protein made the virus more transmissible.
A range of media outlets pointed to the fact that the researchers’ chimeric virus – labelled Omi-S – was especially lethal to lab mice, killing around 80% of those it was tested in. The virus was tested against the Omicron variant and was found to be both more dangerous and infectious. However, it was less dangerous than the original Wuhan strain, which killed 100% of the mice it was tested in.
More so, since the research was conducted in mice, the infection and mortality rate are not comparable to how the Omi-S virus would translate into humans.
The study was conducted in a biosafety level 3 (BSL3) facility at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories of the Boston University using biosafety protocols approved by the institutional biosafety committee (IBC).
However, despite this, the team did not gain clearance from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), an indirect funder of the project, according to STAT News.2
In a statement to the Boston Herald3, Boston University disputed claims that the research conducted was responsible for the creation of a more lethal Omicron variant.
“First, this research is not gain-of-function research, meaning it did not amplify the Washington state SARS-COV-2 virus strain (original virus from 2020) or make it more dangerous,” the university told the Boston Herald.
“In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous,” the university added.
The researchers stated that increased understanding into Omicron’s ability to cause disease could potentially lead to better diagnostics and disease management.
According to STAT News, the Boston University team’s original grant application did not specify the type of work it would be conducting. The team also did not make it clear that its research could involve enhancing a pathogen that was directly linked to a recent pandemic.
Emily Erbelding, director of NIAID’s division of microbiology and infectious diseases told STAT News that the team should have informed NIAID of the work it was intending to conduct.
The NIAID has a policy known as P3CO framework in which research that could “create, transfer or use potential pandemic pathogens resulting from the enhancement of a pathogen’s transmissibility and/or virulence in humans” should be referred to a committee that will assess the risks and benefits of the work.
Speaking to STAT News, Erbelding said that a committee would have been a likely occurrence in relation to this research, had the NIAID know that it involved the creation of a chimeric virus.
Boston University have since released a statement on claims that it should have informed NIAID about the research it was conducting.
In a statement, Boston University said: “Following NIAID’s guidelines and protocols, we did not have an obligation to disclose this research for two reasons. The experiments reported in this manuscript were carried out with funds from Boston University. NIAID funding was acknowledged because it was used to help develop the tools and platforms that were used in this research; they did not fund this research directly.”
Boston University also stated it believes that “funding streams for tools do not require an obligation to report.”
The university also clarified that there was no gain of function with the research, and if “there was evidence that the research was gaining function, under both NIAID and our own protocols we would immediately stop and report.”
The university is now in continued conversation with NIAID leadership and programme officers.