By: April Carson
Boston University has issued a response to media reports suggesting that their researchers created a new and deadly strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Stories claiming that a dangerous new COVID strain had been spawned in the lab were called "false and inaccurate" by the institution in a statement issued today. These stories, some of which cited an 80% kill rate, have been circulating online and causing concern.
However, the university says that the virus variant in question is actually less deadly than the original strain. The so-called "Boston variant" is said to be more transmissible, but causes milder symptoms and has a death rate of around 1%.
As Boston University clarified in their statement, this research is not gain-of-function research. In other words, the researchers did not make the SARS-CoV-2 virus strain more dangerous. Rather, they found that this ancestor virus was actually less harmful than previously thought.
The university stated that the work was approved by food and drug safety institutions, including the Institutional Biosafety Committee and Boston Public Health Commission. They went on to say that their research findings "mirror and reinforce" other studies conducted by similar organizations.
While the variant virus may have been less deadly, it is important to remember that any variation of SARS-CoV-2 has the potential to cause serious illness or death. As such, it is still crucial to take precautions against the virus, such as wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing.
The study, published on Friday in the bioRxiv preprint journal, aimed to determine whether the Omicron spike protein – which has undergone numerous mutations – is responsible for the COVID variant's high transmissibility and reduced severity of symptoms.
To study the impacts of these areas, researchers combined the Omicron spike protein with an ancestral strain of the virus. Then, they compared this mixture to a naturally circulating Omicron variant.
The findings showed that the mutations in the Omicron spike protein did not increase its ability to attach to human cells. However, it was found that these mutations may have increased the virus' ability to spread between people.
In short, they found that the mortality rate for animals infected with the naturally circulating Omicron variant was only 20% while the mortality rate rose to 80% when a second virus mutated. While these findings indicate that mutations in the spike protein can lead to vaccine escape, it also suggests that virulence lies outside of this protein as well.
On Monday, Ronald Corley--PhD, director of the BU National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories and chair of microbiology at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine--explained in a BU article how their work began. It all started with a tissue culture that eventually led to utilizing an animal model. After the lab identified a new strain, they contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which in turn sent them a sample of the Omicron variant.
Corley claimed in the article that "the animal model that was used was a particular type of mouse that is highly susceptible, and 80 to 100 percent of the infected mice succumb to disease from the original strain, the so-called Washington strain." In contrast, he said, "Omicron causes a very mild disease in these animals."
According to him, the 80% statistic media headlines use is wrong and not only distorts the findings, but also obstructs people from understanding the study's true purpose.
However, according to STAT, Boston University is said to have caught the government's attention because of this research. The team apparently did not speak with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases before beginning their work--one of their primary funders.
"The agency indicated it is going to be looking for some answers as to why it first learned of the work through media reports," STAT said. NIAID has not provided comment to MedPage Today since they were first notified of the situation.
BU asserted that it had abided by all regulatory requirements and protocols, stating: "We were not obliged to disclose this research for two reasons, per NIAID's guidelines and protocols. The experiments in this manuscript were performed with Boston University funds. NIAID helped finance the development of the tools and platforms used in this research; however, they did not contribute to this research specifically. NIH also provided funding for a shared instrumentation grant that pathology studies benefited from. We do not believe that obligation to report should be a part of the requirements for being funded when it comes to tools. In this instance, we do not feel that NIH or NIAID contributed to the research in a way that would obligate us to share it with them first."
“If the research showed any evidence of recovery under both NIAID and our own protocols, we would immediately stop and report it," Boston University stated. They also said that they are in continuous conversation with NIAID about further protocol updates.
In a statement, lead researcher Mohsan Saeed said that their findings show it is not the spike protein that causes Omicron pathogenicity, but other viral proteins instead. Determining those proteins will create better diagnostics and strategies for managing the disease.
The researchers also cautioned that the current crop of COVID-19 vaccines may not be as effective against this new variant, though more research is needed to confirm this.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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