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BU calls report that it created a more dangerous COVID strain ‘false and inaccurate’

The school says a British tabloid misrepresented results of virus study conducted at its South End lab.

Manu Anantpadma (left) and JJ Patten worked on the coronavirus in Boston University's South End lab in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic.Callie Donahue

Boston University on Tuesday denied news reports that it had created what a British tabloid breathlessly described as a COVID strain “with an 80% kill rate,” a headline picked up by other media outlets that stirred fears that a dangerous new pathogen could be unleashed.

The story, first reported Monday by The Daily Mail, was “false and inaccurate,” university officials said, because the experiment conducted at its South End lab actually made the virus less dangerous. And there was no evidence that the experiment, which had been approved by an internal biosafety review committee and Boston’s Public Health Commission, was conducted unsafely or improperly.

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“They’ve sensationalized the message, they misrepresent the study and its goals in its entirety,” said Ronald B. Corley, a microbiology professor and director of the university’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories in a statement.

In a brief interview he called the Daily Mail story “completely inflammatory [and] had very little do with the truth.”

Corley said the initial report, which was later picked up by Fox News and other media outlets, pulled one line from a preprint paper by laboratory scientists out of context. The tabloid’s headline said BU researchers had created a COVID strain with “an 80% kill rate — echoing dangerous experiments feared to have started pandemic.”

University officials said the lab-made hybrid version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus did kill 80 percent of mice, but that was less deadly than the original Wuhan strain, which killed 100 percent of mice in a comparison test.

The news reports also barely noted that mortality rates from the coronavirus in mice are very different from those in humans. In fact, Robert Davey, a professor of microbiology at the laboratory who was not involved in the experiment, said mice aren’t particularly reliable animals to use in lab studies of the coronavirus.

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“Ferrets are a better disease model,” said Davey. “Mouse models are not great for human disease.”

The university also denied news reports that the experiment was “gain of function research,” a term used to describe manipulation of pathogens to make them more dangerous.

One government scientist, however, did express concerns about the experiment after the first news stories.

Marsh Plaza on Boston University's Campus on April 17, 2020. Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

Emily Erbelding, director of the microbiology and infectious diseases division at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which helped fund scientific tools for the project, told STAT, The Boston Globe’s sister publication, that BU’s original grant applications didn’t specify the scientists wanted to do this precise work. Nor did the research group say in progress reports it provided to the institute that it was undertaking experiments with the potential to enhance a pathogen.

“I think we’re going to have conversations over upcoming days” with university scientists, she told STAT.

Erbelding did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. The National Institutes of Health, which oversees the institute, said Tuesday night it was reviewing the matter to determine whether BU should have shared more information about the experiment with the federal government.

The university insisted that it had no obligation to share more precise information because the laboratory only used institute funding to develop tools for the project, not the research itself. In addition, the school said, the research did not involve making a pathogen more dangerous, which would have necessitated fuller disclosure.

“We fulfilled all required regulatory obligations and protocols,” BU said in its statement.

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University officials said the experiment involved creating a hybrid virus, in which the spike protein of the Omicron variant was fused to a virus of the original strain. The goal was to determine, among other things, if mutations in the Omicron spike protein made the illness caused by the variant less severe than the Wuhan strain. Scientists concluded that both the spike protein and other parts of the Omicron virus probably made cases of the illness less severe.

The news reports about BU’s experiment caused a stir in part because of unanswered questions about how the pandemic began in China.

Some scientists have theorized that COVID might have resulted from research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, where the pandemic is believed to have started. Many other scientists contend that it is far more likely that the virus spread from a wet market in Wuhan, not the lab.

The BU lab, sometimes called the NEIDL, won final approval in 2017 to research the world’s most lethal microbes, after more than a decade of controversy and failed lawsuits by neighbors who feared an escape of dangerous germs. Built with $200 million in federal money, the lab, located near Boston Medical Center, got permission from the Boston Public Health Commission that year to perform research on Biosafety Level 4 pathogens, the most dangerous microbes that have no treatment or vaccine.

Scientists at the lab had been doing research at Level 2 for five years and at Level 3 since 2014, as part of a national network of secure facilities that study emerging infectious diseases and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines.

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Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.