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Illustration of SARS-CoV-2
Illustration of SARS-CoV-2

US Agency to Look into Project on Modified Coronavirus

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was not aware that the work involved a chimeric strain of SARS-CoV-2, STAT reports.

Catherine Offord
Catherine Offord

Catherine is a senior editor at The Scientist.

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Update (October 19): The director of the Boston University team has told  STAT that the researchers were not obliged to declare their plans to work with a chimeric virus to NIAID because they didn't use agency funding for that part of the work. He also acknowledged that the guidelines weren't completely clear, saying: “It is a murky world, but in our view because the funding was not supporting the work that was supported in this paper, that it wasn’t necessary to report it to NIH.” In response, NIAID told  STAT that NIH was examining the matter”  to ascertain whether the research was indeed subject to its oversight. 

A Boston University project that investigated a chimeric version of SARS-CoV-2 was not fully cleared with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, despite the agency having partially funded the work, STAT reports.

The research was described in a preprint last week (October 14) and quickly attracted controversy thanks to splashy headlines claiming that scientists had made the virus more dangerous. The university dismissed these claims as “false and inaccurate” in a statement yesterday.

STAT reports that while there’s no evidence that the research was unsafe or improperly conducted, officials at NIAID were surprised to learn of the exact nature of the project through the media rather than from the researchers themselves.

“What we would have wanted to do is to talk about exactly what they wanted to do in advance,” Emily Erbelding, director of NIAID’s division of microbiology and infectious diseases, tells STAT. She adds that the Boston University (BU) team’s grant application was lacking specific details about the project, and that the agency might have convened a committee to assess the risks and benefits had it known that the work would include the development of a chimeric virus.

“I think we’re going to have conversations over upcoming days,” she tells STAT.

The research, led by BU’s Mohsan Saeed, involved the creation of a hybrid virus containing the Omicron spike protein glued to the original SARS-CoV-2 strain that circulated in early 2020. The work aimed to investigate if spike protein mutations led to the Omicron subvariants’ enhanced ability to evade immunity—a key factor in this lineage’s rapid spread across Europe, the US, and many other regions last winter.

See “Omicron Appears to Evade Vaccines Better Than Other Variants

The BU findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, suggest that that was indeed the case. They also provide evidence to refute another hypothesis—namely, that spike protein changes were also responsible for the reduced severity of Omicron infections. While the chimeric virus wasn’t as lethal as the original strain when administered to mice, it wasn’t as mild as unmodified Omicron either.

See “How Mild Is Omicron Really?

It was this last finding that was misrepresented in news coverage, according to Erbelding, echoing the sentiment of scientists who commented about the paper online.

“This research mirrors and reinforces the findings of other, similar research performed by other organizations, including the FDA,” Saeed says in BU’s statement. “Consistent with studies published by others, this work shows that it is not the spike protein that drives Omicron pathogenicity, but instead other viral proteins.”

STAT reports that Saaed did not respond to requests for comment before the outlet published its article.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan who was not involved in the project, tells STAT that she could understand where the BU researchers might have gone wrong, as some of the NIAID guidelines on how to describe work with lab-made viruses are ambiguous. “I’d personally reach out for clarification from NIAID when in doubt, but it’s often not obvious when additional guidance is warranted,” she says. “And because it’s not very transparent, it’s hard to look at other decisions NIAID has made for examples.”

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