Boston University is trying to correct the record about COVID-19 research conducted by its scientists, following a series of news reports that the university said inaccurately cast its work as dangerous and not properly evaluated by federal authorities.
An article published Monday in the UK publication Daily Mail reported that scientists at BU's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories had created a new and more lethal strain of the COVID-19 virus by combining an omicron variant with the original strain of the virus. The article described the research as "gain-of-function research," which is the scientific term for altering a virus to possibly make it more infectious or deadly.
But a statement from BU and an article on the university's website says the research is not "gain-of-function" research because it didn't create a more dangerous strain. The university's press office said the research did the opposite, in fact, creating a less dangerous form of the virus.
In addition to the dispute surrounding the outcome of BU's experiments, STAT News this week reported the research was not properly vetted with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and credits the NIAID as one of the funders of the project.
In a written statement to GBH News Tuesday night, a spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health, which oversees NIAID, said the NIAID did not review or provide funding for BU’s experiments. The statement says the NIH is examining the matter to determine if the research met NIH standards for review.
BU says their scientists followed all of NIAID guidelines and protocols.
"The experiments reported in this manuscript were carried out with funds from Boston University," the statement reads. "NIAID funding was acknowledged because it was used to help develop the tools and platforms that were used in this research; they did not fund this research directly. NIH funding was also acknowledged for a shared instrumentation grant that helped support the pathology studies. We believe that funding streams for tools do not require an obligation to report."
In addition, the university said, they were not required to report the research because it did not involve a "gain of function."
"If at any point there was evidence that the research was gaining function, under both NIAID and our own protocols we would immediately stop and report," the statement reads. "All research at Boston University, whether funded by NIAID or not, follows this same protocol."
The coverage has brought new attention to BU's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, which has faced scrutiny in the past for hosting research into some of the deadliest pathogens in the world.
The Daily Mail article, and a subsequent story by Fox News, correctly pointed out that the research created a strain that killed 80% of infected mice. But those articles did not mention that the original Wuhan strain the university researchers started with killed 100% of infected mice.
“This was a statement taken out of context for the purposes of sensationalism,” the lab's director Ronald Corley was quoted as saying in an article on the university's website. “And it totally misrepresents not only the findings, but [also] the purpose of the study.”
Richard Ebright, a professor at Rutgers University who was quoted in the Daily Mail story criticizing the research, continues to say online that the BU work is, in fact, "gain-of-function" research.
"BU needs to retract its demonstrably false press statement and to replace it with a truthful and comprehensive description of how this failure of judgment and process occurred and what steps have been taken to prevent similar failures of judgement and process in the future," Ebright said in a tweet.
Ebright, who is a molecular biologist, has been generally critical of the oversight of labs working with dangerous pathogens.
The research was conducted in one of the NEIDL's infectious disease labs, which has a federal ranking of Biosafety Level 3, meaning it's required to have security features including self-closing, interlocked doors, sealed windows, floors and walls, and filtered ventilation systems.
“We take our safety and security of how we handle pathogens seriously, and the virus does not leave the laboratory in which it’s being studied,” Corley was quoted as saying in the article on BU's website. “Our whole goal is for the public’s health. And this study was part of that, finding what part of the virus is responsible for causing severe disease. If we can understand that, we can then develop the tools that we need to develop better therapeutics.”