The virus that causes Covid-19 keeps evolving. Image: Facebook

Just in case you thought Covid wasn’t bad or dangerous enough, Boston University is working to increase its lethality. In its latest defense of gain of function research, the university claims it is not that dangerous.

Oh, really? The work is summarized in the research paper:

The recently identified, globally predominant SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant (BA.1) is highly transmissible, even in fully vaccinated individuals, and causes attenuated disease compared with other major viral variants recognized to date. The Omicron spike (S) protein, with an unusually large number of mutations, is considered the major driver of these phenotypes. We generated chimeric recombinant SARS-CoV-2 encoding the S gene of Omicron in the backbone of an ancestral SARS-CoV-2 isolate and compared this virus with the naturally circulating Omicron variant. The Omicron S-bearing virus robustly escapes vaccine-induced humoral immunity, mainly due to mutations in the receptor binding motif (RBM), yet unlike naturally occurring Omicron, efficiently replicates in cell lines and primary-like distal lung cells. 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%. This indicates that while the vaccine escape of Omicron is defined by mutations in S, major determinants of viral pathogenicity reside outside of S.

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In plain language, they took the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which is highly transmissible and can infect even fully vaccinated individuals and modified one of the genes in the virus so that it became much more dangerous. The subjects of the experiment were mice. Mice infected with regular Omicron had nonfatal infections. 

The paper worked with the Spike protein of Omicron and the key finding was that pathogenicity (the ability to kill) occurs outside of the S or Spike protein. The new variant infected targets that had been vaccinated against Omicron and it caused serious disease mortality at a rate of 80%. 

Unlike other scientific research papers that depend on outside funding, the published Boston University paper never mentions how the work was financed. And the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which in fact funded the work, says it did not know that the research was aimed at modifying the coronavirus.

If you were hoping the scientific community had learned something about lab security from the coronavirus outbreak in 2019, it appears not. The paper, entitled “Role of spike in the pathogenic and antigenic behavior of SARS-CoV-2 BA.1 2 Omicron,” included participation from 23 senior scientists and, no doubt, countless lab assistants. 

Some of the scientists are concentrated in the Boston areas (including at Harvard University), one is at the University Hospital in Erlangen, Germany, one at a branch of the Cleveland Clinic in Florida, one from the University of Wisconsin and one from a medical center in Mainz, Germany. 

NIAID plus the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and two agencies in the Department of Defense are the same organizations that funded coronavirus research in China, primarily at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, an institute organized under China’s Academy of Sciences.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s Hubei province. Questions have swirled around possible leaks from the lab. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Wuhan Institute previously collaborated with the Galveston National Laboratory in the United States, the Centre International de Recherche en Infectiologie in France, and the National Microbiology Laboratory in Canada. 

In 2021, two Chinese scientists at the Microbiology Laboratory in Canada were fired. At least one of these scientists had visited the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the government’s most sensitive biological laboratory which includes highly classified research work.

All these institutes, including Wuhan’s, carry out classified research on bioweapons. USAMRIID and Wuhan are known as Level 4 (BSL-4 or Biosafety Level 4) labs, the most secure for carrying out dangerous research, especially gain of function. The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories at Boston University is also a Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory complex.  

How dangerous is this work?  In the case of China, the US government was so concerned about the Wuhan Institute of Virology that it sent representatives there on two occasions in 2018 and interviewed the chief “bat” scientist, She Zhengli.

In 2019, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  inspected and failed the USAMRIID laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland.  The lab there was closed for months so that a cleanup could take place and identified risks remediated.

A number of private American laboratories and organizations and the private venture Eco Health Alliance were also directly involved in Wuhan laboratory research. Despite its record of funding Wuhan and collaborating with China, Eco Health Alliance was in recent weeks given a new grant from the NIAID for coronavirus research.

Understanding what causes the pathogenicity in Covid – the ostensible rationale for the Boston University research – could be important. It is now understood that Covid vaccines do not prevent the disease from infecting vaccinated persons, but do reduce the worst symptoms associated with Covid.

This is achieved at a certain cost, including myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), especially in teenage boys. If pathogenicity is found elsewhere in Omicron (and perhaps, but not certainly, in other Covid variants), then perhaps other types of vaccines can be developed. Gain of function, however, is a notably dangerous path to take.

Gain of function is “medical research that genetically alters an organism in a way that may enhance the biological functions of gene products. This may include an altered pathogenesis, transmissibility, or host range, i.e., the types of hosts that a microorganism can infect.” 

Boston University would need to clarify that its research did not enhance biological functions by altering genes in the virus or explain why it did alter the pathogenesis of the virus (namely making it far more lethal).  If in fact Covid itself was produced originally in a laboratory, making it capable of infecting humans, then Boston University has made it even more dangerous.

Questions are swirling around Boston University’s new Covid research. Photo: Twitter

Boston University insists it was not gain of function research at all. It claims that the NIAID money was only used to buy the specialized equipment needed for the research and not used to fund the scientists – and therefore, NIAID was not funding the project at all.

The second argument is disingenuous hair-splitting to justify not reporting to NIAID on the research. In NIAID grants, recipients are required to file progress reports and at least one such report was filed before the work was completed. It is hard to imagine how such a report could be written without explaining what the work was about. 

This issue can be resolved very simply: NIAID should publish the interim report it received from Boston University and publish the original grant documents to help us understand whether NIAID was misled or failed in oversight, or whether the funding was a scheme intended to hide gain of function research involving Covid.

Even without information on the grants and the progress report, the fact remains that the US government, specifically NIH and NIAID, bears responsibility for funding dangerous research.

Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter @stevebryen