Covid-19: fantasies and controversy around the "chimera" of a Boston laboratory

Covid-19: fantasies and controversy around the “chimera” of a Boston laboratory

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

Scientists at Boston University surely did not expect this. Accused by sensationalist media of having created a “more deadly” strain of Covid-19, his laboratory is now the subject of an investigation by health authorities, the existence of which was confirmed to the Financial Times on Wednesday, October 19. Reluctantly, they also reignited the ardor 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 that “is quite important to understand how the virus works,” says Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick Medical School. These American researchers show that mutations in the famous Spike protein of 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 the drunkenness matter, as long as you can question the bottle. Because the laboratory used a method that may surprise you to carry out its experiment. The scientists combined the genome of the original strain of Covid-19 with the spike protein of 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 and found that 80% of the rodents exposed to the disease had died. The British tabloid The Daily Mail did not take long to publish an article entitled “Scientists have created a new strain of Covid-19 that kills 80%”.

Enough to ensure the virality of the article on social networks… A fatality rate of 80% would be enough to push this variant into the yard of the most lethal viruses, such as Ebola. The success was especially immediate in the conspiracy nebula of the Internet. “It is certain that the idea of ​​a virus developed by man in the laboratory had something to seduce the followers of the conspiracy theory according to which the Covid-19 it was manufactured by Chinese scientists in the Wuhan laboratory,” says Lawrence Young. .

The sensational Daily Mail article provoked an outraged reaction from Boston University, which in a statement denounced the “false and inaccurate” accusations.

The experience of the American researchers would not have resulted in the creation of a more lethal variant. In fact, “this ‘chimerical’ strain [c’est-à-dire qui n’existe pas dans la nature] it was administered to mice that became particularly sensitive to the effects of Covid-19”, emphasizes Lawrence Young. Thus, 100% of these same mammals, more fragile against the disease, succumbed to the effects of the original strain of Sars-Cov. -2, against 80% of the mice exposed to the hybrid variant. Hence the Boston University claim that the Daily Mail article was misleading and that the hybrid strain was ultimately less dangerous than the original virus.

Dangerous “gain of function”?

US investigators hoped the controversy would end there. But the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main American public organization that supports medical research, then launched an investigation to determine if the Boston laboratory was at fault for not asking for their authorization to carry out their experiment.

At issue this time: playing virology alchemist by combining two strains to create a new one. A method above which the specter of “gain of function” floats. “It is a very important and widely used process in genetics that consists of artificially adding characteristics to a gene to study the reaction. Its use in virology, just as relevant in my opinion, has always been more controversial”, summarizes Lawrence Young.

These detractors worry about human manipulation that would result in the transformation of a pathogen into a virus that is deadly and/or capable of triggering pandemics. This fear is recent: it dates from 2012 and a scientific article related to the “gain of function” work carried out 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 for study or mixed it with elements of smallpox,” specifies Luke Young.

It recognizes 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 apply draconian security procedures, and that’s what Boston University seems to have done,” said the British virologist.

The US laboratory researchers used a security level 3 laboratory – that is, just below the existing military security system in the few research centers authorized to handle the most dangerous pathogens (such as the Wuhan laboratory) – to carry out carry out your 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 a study with mixtures of the original strain with elements of most of the variants known to date, he recalls. Liberation newspaper.

“bureaucratic error”

In addition, Boston University denies that the published work involves a “gain of function” and argues that the green light obtained from the university’s internal biosafety committee was sufficient.

For her, there is no gain of function because the experiment “did not amplify the original strain of Sars-CoV-2 or make it more dangerous.” A very restrictive definition of this concept since it only takes into account the results of the study. This is the open door to all hybridizations since you can never be sure in advance of the result of a manipulation.

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

However, he believes that when in doubt, the researchers should have informed the NIH. Especially “given that the activities of this laboratory are partially financed by this organization which, as a result, may, according to US regulations, be required to give consent” on experiments that require special security measures, details Luke Young.

“It is, therefore, above all, a story of bureaucratic error,” adds this expert. The risk, according to him, is that in the heated context of discussions about Covid-19, such a case would damage a very useful investigative 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 antibodies.

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