Lab-made coronavirus variant killed 80 percent of mice: Here's what you need to know

Do we really need this?
Ameya Paleja
3D render of coronavirus.
3D render of coronavirus.

ffikretow/iStock 

Researchers at the University of Boston have released a pre-print of their research describing how they have created a new variant of the COVID-19 virus. It's stated in the paper that when mice were infected with this new variant, 80 percent of them died. This also rais questions on the need to do this type of research, a Forbes report said.

For those who do not know, a pre-print is a publication that is designed to get research information out to the world early on. Research papers published in noted journals like Nature and Science often go through a peer-review process, where field experts review the tiny details of the research conducted.

However, the process is often time-consuming, often requiring a good part of a year to be completed. During the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers used the pre-print publication route, where no peer review is performed, to get information out, such as the detection of new variants or data from transmissibility studies, etc. This was useful in helping health organizations formulate their policies for infection control.

Leaving NIH in the dark

The research published by the Boston researchers, however, does not fit into this bracket at all. The researchers aren't adding anything to the sea of information about existing or known COVID variants, instead have opened the route to an old discussion altogether about the origins of coronavirus and if it could be made in the lab.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has been closely involved in the U.S. response to the pandemic, making it a political issue.

Many have argued that the researchers did not seek the approval of the NIH to conduct such a study and called it dangerous, even criminal.

Is the research really a threat?

To understand if the research is really dangerous, one needs to get into the nitty-gritty of what the team really did. As published in the pre-print, the researchers used a genetic engineering technique to change the spike protein on the original coronavirus to the one that is found on the BA.1 Omicron subvariant.

They then infected three sets of mice with three versions of coronavirus, the first coronavirus as detected in 2020, the Omicron variant, and the one made in the Boston Lab. Each set of mice was infected with only one virus variant. The Boston Lab variant killed 80 percent of the mice, meaning it was quite deadly, which most news outlets are talking about.

However, we need to take into consideration the results of the infection by the other two strains in order to understand if the research was dangerous. 80 percent of the mice injected with the Omicron variant died during this experiment, while the death rate was 100 percent with mice infected with the original coronavirus.

This basically means that instead of creating a new deadly virus, the researchers showed that changes in the spike protein make the coronavirus less deadly, which is a valuable lesson. Did the researchers know this at the beginning of their experiments? Probably not. Should they have told NIH about these experiments? Probably yes. However, the study was also authorized by the ethics committee at the university, so there isn't something sinister in the intent of the researchers.

Did the research need a publication in a pre-print? Researchers thought so. Being hyped up and misunderstood easily isn't something scientists consider when publishing their research.

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