The Boston University lab combined the genome of the original Covid-19 virus with part of the Omicron variant to try to determine what makes it easier for this strain to escape the immunity provided by vaccination. The technique, which may seem dubious, has led to a stream of controversy and an investigation by US health officials, which was confirmed on Wednesday.
Researchers at Boston University certainly did not expect this. Accused by the sensational media of having created a “deadlier” strain of Covid-19, their laboratory is now the subject of an investigation by health authorities, the existence of which was confirmed to the Financial Times on Wednesday 19 October. Reluctantly, they also rekindled the fervor of conspiracy theorists for whom the Sars-Cov-2 virus was in fact a human creation in a laboratory in Wuhan.
It all started with a study published the previous week, which “turns out to be quite important to our understanding of how the virus works”, assures Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick’s medical school. These American researchers demonstrate that the mutations of the famous Spike protein in Sars-CoV-2 [la pointe du virus qui lui sert à s’accrocher aux cellules pour les infecter, NDLR] allow the Omicron variant – currently dominant in the world – to thwart vaccine immunity more easily, but that it is not these changes “that have made this strain less virulent than the original virus”, summarizes Lawrence Young. Two conclusions that had not yet been scientifically proven.
Genetically modified mice
But what does drunkenness mean, as long as one can question the bottle. Because the lab used a surprising method to conduct its experiment. The researchers combined the genome from the original strain of Covid-19 with the spike protein from the Omicron variant. As a result, they developed an artificial mutant of the Sars-Cov-2 virus in the laboratory.
They then infected laboratory mice to find that 80% of the rodents thus exposed to the disease died. It didn’t take much for the British tabloid The Daily Mail to run an article with the title “Scientists have created a new strain of Covid-19 which kills 80%”.
Enough to ensure the virality of the article on social networks… A mortality rate of 80% would be enough to drive this variant into the garden of the most deadly viruses, such as Ebola. The success was, above all, immediate in the conspiratorial fog of the web. “It is certain that the idea of a virus developed by humans in the laboratory had something to seduce the supporters of the conspiracy theory according to which Covid-19 was manufactured by Chinese scientists in the laboratory in Wuhan”, observes Lawrence Young.
The sensational Daily Mail article sparked outrage from Boston University, which called the claims “false and inaccurate” in a statement.
The experience of American scientists would not have resulted in the creation of a more deadly variant. In fact, “this ‘chimeric’ strain [c’est-à-dire qui n’existe pas dans la nature] was administered to mice, which were made particularly sensitive to the effects of Covid-19″, emphasizes Lawrence Young. Thus, 100% of the same mammals, which became more fragile in the face of the disease, succumbed to the effects of the original strain of Sars- Cov. -2, against 80% of mice exposed to the hybrid variant, hence the claim by Boston University that the Daily Mail article was misleading and that the hybrid strain was ultimately less dangerous than the original virus.
Dangerous “gain of function”?
The American researchers hoped that the dispute would stop there. But the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main US government organization that supports medical research, then launched an investigation to determine whether the Boston lab was at fault for not asking for its permission to conduct its experiment.
On the question this time: the fact of playing the alchemists of virology by combining two strains to create a new one. A method over which hovers the specter of “gain of function”. “It is a very important and often used process in genetics, which consists of artificially adding characteristics to a gene to study the response. Its use in virology, as relevant in my opinion, has always been more controversial”, summarizes Lawrence Young .
These opponents worry about human manipulation that would result in transforming a pathogenic agent into a deadly virus and/or capable of triggering pandemics. This fear is new: it dates back to 2012, and a scientific article about “gain of function” work done on the influenza virus recalls the site of the scientific journal Nature.
“Most of the debate revolves around this virus and what would happen if someone tried to recreate the Spanish flu to study it or mixed it with elements of smallpox,” explains Luke Young.
He recognizes that the risk of a laboratory accident resulting in the release of a dangerous man-made virus into the wild is not to be taken lightly. “That’s why you have to employ draconian security procedures, and that’s what Boston University seems to have done,” the British virologist said.
Thus, the researchers from the American laboratory used a level 3 security laboratory – that is, just below the military security system in place in the few research centers authorized to handle the most dangerous pathogens (such as the Wuhan laboratory) – to carry out their work. Nor are they the only ones to have used this technique to study Sars-CoV-2, since Chinese scientists in September published the results of work involving mixtures of the original strain with elements of most variants known to date , reminiscent of the daily Liberation.
In addition, Boston University disputes that the published work implies a “gain of function” and claims that the green light obtained from the university’s internal biosafety committee was sufficient.
For her, there is no gain in function because the experience “did not amplify the original strain of Sars-CoV-2, nor did it make it more dangerous”. A very restrictive definition of this term, as it only takes into account the result of the study. This leaves the door open for all hybridisations, as one can never be sure in advance of the result of a manipulation.
But nothing prevents Boston University from accepting this interpretation. “There is currently no consensus definition,” explains Luke Young.
However, he believes that if there was any doubt, the researchers should have informed the NIH. Especially “since the activities of this laboratory are partly financed by this organization, which, as a result, according to American regulations, may be obliged to give its acceptance” about experiments that require special safety measures, details Luke Young.
“It is therefore above all a story of bureaucratic errors”, adds this expert. The risk, according to him, is that such a case in the heated context of the discussions surrounding Covid-19 would damage an otherwise very useful research technique. After all, Astrazeneca-Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine is based on a similar approach, containing the genome of a common virus to which an ounce of Sars-CoV-2 has been added to stimulate the immune system to make the right ones antibodies.