(HealthDay News) — The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investigating experiments at Boston University that have sparked a media firestorm, with some news outlets alleging that scientists created a “killer” strain of SARS-CoV-2 as part of their research.
Boston University is refuting those news accounts, calling them a “false and inaccurate” interpretation of its research.
“They’ve sensationalized the message; they misrepresent the study and its goals in its entirety,” Ronald Corley, PhD, chair of microbiology and director of the Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, said in a statement.
Nevertheless, the news has drawn the attention of federal officials. Emily Erbelding, MD, director of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told STAT News that the Boston University researchers did not specify the direction their research took in their NIH grant application. The research team did not make clear that its experiments might involve potentially enhancing SARS-CoV-2, Dr Erbelding said.
With proper notification, “we could have put a package forward for review by the committee that’s convened by HHS [US Department of Health and Human Services], the office of the assistant secretary for preparedness and response. That’s what the framework lays out, and that’s what we would have done,” Dr Erbelding told STAT News.
The Boston University researchers were looking at the spike proteins on both the original strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as well as the omicron BA.1 variant. The goal was to determine whether the spike protein has anything to do with how severely ill a person might become, Dr Corley said.
As part of their research, the team created a hybrid — the original SARS-CoV-2 virus coupled with the BA.1 variant’s spike protein — dubbed the omicron S-carrying virus.
A preprint report on the research noted that, in K18-hACE2 mice, BA.1 caused “mild, non-fatal infection.” However, among mice infected with the omicron S-carrying virus, the mortality rate was 80%. The mortality rate was 100% in mice infected with the original strain of SARS-CoV-2.
Dr Corley explained that K18-hACE2 mice are specially bred for COVID-19 experiments, and their death rate does not directly reflect the risk of the hybrid virus to humans.