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19 Oct, 2022 19:57

Lab-made Covid strain gets attention from US government

The university behind a deadly SARS-CoV-2 hybrid claims it didn’t have to gain clearance from the authorities
Lab-made Covid strain gets attention from US government

Boston University researchers who developed a deadly strain of the virus that causes Covid-19 did not clear their endeavor with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the agency claimed on Monday. The NIAID announced that it would be seeking answers as to why it only learned of the experiment through media reports.

The original grant application did not specify that the work might involve gain-of-function-type research, NIAID microbiology and infectious diseases division director Emily Erbelding told STAT News, adding that none of the group’s progress reports mention this crucial detail. NIAID and its parent agency the National Institutes of Health (NIH) partially funded the study.

Ronald Corley, director of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, where the deadly strain was created, insisted on Tuesday that the school had paid for the research on its own. This is despite multiple NIAID and NIH grants listed in the preprint paper.

Corley argued the federal funding had merely gone toward developing a system that would later be used in the controversial research. The work did not qualify as gain of function, he explained, because the resulting strain had only killed 80% of infected mice, while the original Wuhan strain of the virus had killed 100% of mice it was tested on. 

The researchers had created a hybrid of the original Wuhan strain of SARS-CoV-2 with the spike protein from the less-severe Omicron in an effort to discover whether the latter’s spike mutations were responsible for the milder illness experienced by those infected.

A gain-of-function experiment gone awry remains one of the main theories to explain the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in 2019, along with the theory that it originated from a bat at a Wuhan livestock market. However, there still has not been any investigation that would either confirm or deny any of the theories.