Republican lawmakers question Boston University on research creating new COVID-19 strain

Republican lawmakers question Boston University on research creating new COVID-19 strain

Top Republican lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Boston University President Robert Brown this week, requesting information about recently published research showing scientists created a new strain of COVID-19. 

Researchers with the university’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) set out to compare the omicron variant to the original strain of COVID-19.

They created a hybrid by fusing the spike protein from the omicron variant to the original strain, then infected mice with the omicron variant, the original strain, and the new hybrid version. 

None of the mice were killed by the omicron variant, but 80% died from the new hybrid strain, and all the mice died from the original virus. 

“In K18-hACE2 mice, while Omicron causes mild, non-fatal infection, the Omicron S-carrying virus inflicts severe disease with a mortality rate of 80%,” the researchers wrote in the study, which has not been peer reviewed. 

Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories located at 620 Albany Street.
(Ted Fitzgerald/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

The research was met with immediate criticism, but the university defended the study. 

“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. In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous,” the university said in a statement last week. 

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Not everyone was convinced that the research didn’t carry some risks. Steven Salzberg, a biomedical engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University, argued that the study does qualify as gain-of-function research. 

“The scientists took sequences from two different strains of the Covid-19 virus, one of which was relatively mild, and created a new strain that is far more infectious and far more deadly,” Salzberg wrote in Forbes. “As many scientists (and others) have pointed out, research like this carries great risks, foremost among them the chance that an accidental lab leak could create a new pandemic, killing millions of people.”

Healthcare workers work on the preparation of evaluation swabs for Coronavirus in a research laboratory.

Healthcare workers work on the preparation of evaluation swabs for Coronavirus in a research laboratory.
(Stefano Guidi/Getty Images)

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House Republicans are now asking Boston University for all proposal and progress reports related to the study, each of the National Institutes of Health grants referenced in the study, a list of all funding streams for the study, and a copy of the university’s safety protocols. They are also questioning whether the research needed to be approved by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Boston University did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. 

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