Scientists at Boston create a new COVID virus variant, raise serious ethical questions

  • Scientists at the University of Boston have created a new variant of the COVID virus by genetically modifying spike proteins. 
  • The Boston lab variant showed an 80 percent death rate in the mice sample it was tested on. 
  • Such studies have raised a serious ethical question in the research community about bioweapon creation.

Scientists at the University of Boston recently published a study on their lab-generated variant of the COVID virus.

The study, which was released as a preprint article, deals with the technique by which researchers ended up creating a new genetically modified variant of the COVID virus.

A pre-print article aims to quickly propagate information regarding diseases of concern. The usual process of publishing a research manuscript takes around a year and is a “peer-reviewed” process.

However pre-print articles are published faster and without review. The world saw a surge in such articles during the COVID-19 pandemic as news about successful research on potential medicines and vaccines was released as such.

The new lab virus

Essentially the process began with the scientists studying the core structure of the infamous virus. Most viruses like the COVID virus cause disease via specific proteins present on their envelope known as spike proteins.

These spike proteins are responsible for allowing the virus to invade healthy cells. Henceforth the viral genetic material gets incorporated into the host cell genome and is thus exploited for creating virus replicas. So, spike proteins are crucial for the pathogenesis of viral disease.

Scientists studied spike proteins of both the original COVID-19 virus as well as the Omicron subvariant. Then using a genetic engineering method they changed the structure of the spike proteins and replaced them with the one found in the BA. 1 omicron variant thus creating the “Boston lab variant”.

The staggering results

To verify the pathogenicity of the Boston lab variant of the COVID virus, scientists performed a simple experiment using three sets of mice.

The first set was infected with the original COVID-19 variant, the second with the omicron variant, and the third set was infected with the Boston lab variant.

Results showed a 100 percent death rate in the first set infected with the original virus. 90 percent of the mice infected with the omicron variant died. While the death rate in the third set infected with the Boston lab variant remained at 80 percent.

This data confirms that a modification in the spike proteins of the COVID virus itself causes a fall in its pathogenicity or ability to be fatal.

So the Boston lab variant might be “less deadly” than the other variants however, this research undertaken by the University of Boston has sparked a serious ethical debate.

The ethical question 

While the primary aim of the research undertaken at Boston was to create a relationship between the modification of spike proteins and the consequent pathogenicity in a new strain of COVID virus, it has raised a major question although not a novel one.

Can the original COVID-19 virus have been conceived in a laboratory as a bioweapon?

Stalwarts in the field of medicine have come forward to condemn the study at Boston which was funded by the National Institute of Health(NIH).

Such experts believe that the team should not create new variants of the virus in the name of research due to its potential of being misused. The consequences of biological warfare are far more severe than nuclear war.

With the advent of genetic engineering, it has become easy to diagnose and treat severe genetic medical conditions and save lives. On the other hand, it’s also made possible the creation of a deadly pandemic, which alters the course of life as we know it, in a test tube.

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