Did U.S. Scientists Create a Deadlier COVID Variant in a Lab?

Rampant misinformation about a Boston University study to better understand the virus shows how conspiracy theories can go viral.
Did U.S. Scientists Create a Deadlier COVID Variant In a Lab?
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Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL) has been conducting research on infectious diseases for over a decade, and studying COVID specifically pretty much since the pandemic began. But on Oct. 14, when the lab released a preprint detailing results of their work reengineering the Omicron spike protein, their research suddenly became a lightning rod for panic and speculation. 

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News outlets were quick to sound the alarm. “This is playing with fire—it could spark a lab-generated pandemic,” one Daily Mail headline warned. “Boston University researchers claim to have developed new, more lethal COVID strain in lab,” Fox News announced. The articles really highlighted two things: Scientists were making their own versions of the virus, and that  it killed 80 percent of the mice in the study.

The fear is understandable. The pandemic has killed millions of people worldwide and left others permanently debilitated. The idea that scientists could have created a more deadly version of the virus is scary and feeds into theories about a possible artificial origin for COVID-19—something that is being investigated but for which nobody has found concrete evidence. It’s also not entirely true. 

The study is a preprint, meaning it hasn’t been peer-reviewed or accepted by a scientific journal. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any guidelines or approvals before it was submitted. According to a lab press release responding to fearmongering over the study, the study was approved by the Institutional Biosafety Committee, and the Boston Public Health Commission, and was conducted in the lab’s biosafety-level 3 facilities. Although the work was not cleared by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as a STAT article explains, this was not necessary because the team wasn’t using funding from the agency. 

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In terms of the actual methods of the research, contrary to what outlets reported, the virus was not engineered to be more dangerous. Rather, it was trying to compare different strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to give us a better idea of how we could eventually combat it. This is the purpose of most work that occurs in these facilities.

“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,” NEIDL Director Ronald B. Corley said in a press release. “In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous.”

In the BU study, researchers were actually just comparing how the Omicron variant compared to the original Wuhan strain. They created a hybrid version of the virus that contained genetic information for both the Omicron and the ancestral strain. They started in a tissue culture and eventually moved on to an animal model, but never humans. Working with mice, they found that the recombinant version killed 80 percent of the lab mice, which—and this is key—made it more deadly than the Omicron strain but still weaker than the original strain. 

“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,” Corley said. “Whereas Omicron causes a very mild disease in these animals.”

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Mohsan Saaed, one of the lead researchers on the study, also emphasized that this research is similar to that of other organizations, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Consistent with studies published by others, this work shows that it is not the spike protein that drives Omicron pathogenicity, but instead other viral proteins,” Saeed said in a press release. “Determination of those proteins will lead to better diagnostics and disease management strategies.”

It makes sense why people were quick to freak out over this given that some believe the SARS-CoV-2 originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. This COVID lab-leak theory often feeds into many misunderstandings about the nature of scientific research. So-called gain-of-function research—wherein scientists make viruses more capable and deadly—is controversial. In fact, from 2014-2017, there was a moratorium on research that was attempting to create novel pathogens. However, the NIH lifted this moratorium in December 2017, deeming gain-of-function research important in “helping us identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health.” 

But, as previously mentioned, the Boston University study was not gain-of-function research. As virologist Florian Kramer points out in a Twitter thread, this research is normal. 

“Of note, other labs have legally made such viruses and used them for serology assays [tests for immune responses] without any problem,” he wrote, citing a study published in Nature earlier this year. He also points out that the FDA did similar experiments, published in September

Altogether, the headlines were completely sensationalized and misrepresented the purpose of the study. This incident highlights how work on dangerous viruses can get spun into a conspiracy theory that doesn't resemble reality.