A controversial new study involving an engineered version of Covid’s omicron variant raises new questions about research oversight.

By Kelsey Piper 

The omicron variant of Covid-19 is more transmissible than earlier variants of the virus, which has helped drive so many infections that health officials have essentially lost count. But omicron is also less deadly than past variants, even controlling for patient demographics and vaccination status. That’s a very good thing, because a more transmissible and more deadly version of a virus that has already killed more than 6.5 million people around the world would be a true nightmare.

We’re very fortunate evolution hasn’t dealt us that card yet. Which is why it’s rather strange that scientists at Boston University decided to see if they could engineer in a lab a new Covid virus — called the omicron S-bearing virus — that was as contagious as omicron (that is, extremely contagious), but more likely to cause severe disease.

It turns out they could. Which we know because they published the details over the weekend.

“The Omicron S-bearing virus robustly escapes vaccine-induced humoral immunity … yet unlike naturally occurring Omicron, efficiently replicates in cell lines and primary-like distal lung cells,” their just-released preprint paper announces. “In K18-hACE2 mice [a kind of mouse specifically engineered to be vulnerable to Covid], while Omicron causes mild, non-fatal infection, the Omicron S-carrying virus inflicts severe disease with a mortality rate of 80%.”

What that means is that their new virus seems substantially more dangerous than the original omicron variant, though still less deadly in their mouse population than original Covid-19. Taking the mouse models at face value, they likely invented a virus with omicron’s infectivity and a lethality somewhere between that of omicron and that of earlier strains of Covid. That’s worrying, to say the least.

Mistakes can be made

The researchers behind this work were doubtlessly trying to help the world, but you don’t have to look very far back in history to imagine what could have gone wrong here. Last November, in Taiwan, a lab assistant working with Covid-infected mice was bitten by the mice, caught Covid — almost certainly from the lab, as it wasn’t circulating in Taiwan at the time — and exposed 110 people.

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