COVID-19: Illusions and controversy over the "delusion" of the Boston Lab
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COVID-19: Illusions and controversy over the “delusion” of the Boston Lab

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A Boston University laboratory has combined the original Covid-19 virus genome with part of an Omicron variant in an effort to determine what allows this strain to escape more easily from the immunity conferred by vaccination. The technology, which may seem questionable, has led to a torrent of controversy and an investigation by US health authorities, which was confirmed on Wednesday.

The scientists at Boston University certainly did not expect this. Accused by sensationalist media of creating a “more deadly” strain of Covid-19, their lab is now under investigation by health authorities, the existence of which was confirmed to the Financial Times on Wednesday, October 19. Reluctantly, they also galvanized conspiracy theorists that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was, in fact, man-made in a laboratory in Wuhan.

It all started with a study published last week that “turned out to be somewhat important to our understanding of how the virus works,” stresses Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick Medical School. These American researchers show that mutations of the famous spike protein of Sars-CoV-2 [la pointe du virus qui lui sert à s’accrocher aux cellules pour les infecter, NDLR] Allowing the Omicron variant – currently prevalent in the world – to thwart vaccine immunity more easily, but it is not these changes “that made this strain less virulent than the original virus,” summarizes Lawrence Young. Two conclusions that have not yet been scientifically proven.

transgenic mice

But what’s the point of sugar, as long as you can question the bottle. Because the lab used a method that might surprise you by conducting its experiment. Scientists have combined the genome of the original strain of Covid-19 with the barbed protein of the Omicron variant. As a result, they developed a synthetic mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the laboratory.

They then infected lab mice and found that 80% of rodents exposed to the disease died. It took no more than the British tabloid The Daily Mail to paint an article titled “Scientists have created a new strain of Covid-19 that kills 80%”.

Enough to ensure that the article spreads on social networks… An 80% lethality rate would be enough to push this alternative into the arena of the deadliest of viruses, such as Ebola. Success was above all instant in the Conspiratorial Nebula on Grid. “Certainly the idea of ​​a virus developed by a human in a laboratory had something to seduce followers of the conspiracy theory according to which Covid-19 was manufactured by Chinese scientists in a Wuhan laboratory,” notes Lawrence Young.

The Daily Mail’s sensational article sparked an angry reaction from Boston University, which in a statement denounced the “false and inaccurate” allegations.

The experiment of American researchers could not have produced a more deadly species. In fact, “this is a ‘fantasy’ breed.” [c’est-à-dire qui n’existe pas dans la nature] It was given to mice that had become particularly sensitive to the effects of Covid-19,” asserts Lawrence Young. Thus 100% of these same mammals became more vulnerable to the disease succumbing to the effects of the original strain of Sars-Cov-2, versus 80% of the mice that were given the disease. I was exposed to the hybrid variant, hence Boston University’s assertion that the Daily Mail article was misleading and that the hybrid strain was ultimately less dangerous than the original virus.

The danger of “gaining the job”?

American researchers had hoped the controversy would stop there. But the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main US public organization that supports medical research, then launched an investigation to determine whether the Boston lab was wrong by not asking permission to run its experiment.

In question this time: the fact that chemists played virology by combining two strains to create a new one. A method in which the specter of “gaining a job” floats over. “It is a very important and often used process in genetics and consists in adding artificial properties to a gene to study interaction. Its use in virology, as convenient in my opinion, has always been more controversial,” summarizes Lawrence Young.

These critics worry that human manipulation could turn the pathogen into a virus that is fatal and/or capable of causing epidemics. This fear is recent: It dates back to 2012 and a science article related to “gaining the job” was done on the influenza virus, states the science journal Nature website.

“Most of the controversy revolves around this virus and what would happen if someone tried to recreate the Spanish flu to study or mix it with elements of smallpox,” explains Luke Young.

It acknowledges that the risk of a laboratory accident resulting in the release of a dangerous man-made virus into the wild should not be taken lightly. “That’s why you have to implement strict security measures, and apparently Boston University did,” said the British virologist.

And so researchers from the US lab used a Security Level 3 lab—just below the military security system in place at the few research centers authorized to process the most dangerous pathogens (such as the Wuhan lab)—to implement them. their work. Nor are they the only ones who have used this technique to study Sars-CoV-2 since Chinese scientists published in September the results of work that includes a mixture of the original strain with elements from most variants known to date, reports Liberation daily.

‘bureaucratic error’

Furthermore, Boston University is skeptical that the published work involved a “job gain” and argues that the green light obtained from the university’s internal biosafety committee was sufficient.

For her, there is no gain of the job because the experiment “did not inflate the original Sars-CoV-2 strain nor make it more dangerous”. A very restrictive definition of this concept because it only takes into account the result of the study. This is the door open to all crosses as one can never be sure in advance of the result of the manipulation.

But nothing prevents Boston University from accepting this interpretation either. “There is currently no consensus definition,” Luke Young explains.

However, he believes that when in doubt, researchers should have reported to the National Institutes of Health. Especially since “the activities of this laboratory are partly funded by this organization which, as a result, in accordance with US regulations, may be required to give its consent” to experiments that require special security measures, Luke Young explained.

“It is above all a story of bureaucratic error,” adds this expert. The danger, according to him, is that in the heated context of discussions about Covid-19, such a case would damage a very useful research technology. After all, Astrazeneca-Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine relies on a similar approach because it contains the genome of a common virus to which an ounce of Sars-CoV-2 has been added to stimulate the immune system to manufacture the correct antibodies.

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