I didn’t believe anything about COVID could upset me anymore until I heard about these folks at Boston University…

The news came out that there was an experiment at Boston University to try to make a potentially more lethal SARS-CoV-2 omicron virus. On face value this seems like an incredibly stupid idea, but with more investigation, it’s actually worse than that!

There is a federal biodefense lab at Boston University (National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory) started by NIH in 2009 in response to the anthrax attacks. This is one of several facilities across the country that were set up to deal with potential bioterrorism threats such as anthrax, smallpox, or other dangerous potential bioweapons. While some of these laboratories do productive work on dangerous pathogens (an example is the lab in Galveston, TX) the laboratory in Boston is remarkably underused.

(You also might ask why the government would put a laboratory performing the most dangerous infectious diseases in the middle of Boston? Almost all the other facilities were at DOE and DOD national laboratories or other restricted sites.)

Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL). Photo by Boston University Photography

There is one reason this lab has continued to operate. NIH spends an enormous amount of money to build and support this laboratory facility. In fact, Boston University jumped in NIH rankings among universities because of the money it received to start the laboratory. Given how little it is used, I presume the main reason that it has been kept open is to maintain this flow of federal money to BU.

Given this background, it still isn’t clear why scientists at BU had the idea to take the spike protein from the original coronavirus and place it into the Omicron virus variant. This is a reverse of the natural evolution of this virus where Omicron evolved from the original COVID virus to become more contagious and less deadly. Omicron has these qualities because its spike protein is more efficient in infecting the nose (making it more contagious) and less effective at infecting the lungs (making it less deadly). 

The BU investigators hypothesized that replacing the spike protein in Omicron with the original COVID virus spike would enhance Omicron’s infecting the lungs and make it more deadly. Doing this provides no new knowledge since it just basically reverses what we already know about these two viruses.

Reducing the value of this research even further, the investigators used a COVID mouse model of infection to test their virus. All these mice are killed by original COVID but have mild disease with Omicron. 80% of these mice are killed by the new recombinant virus. Despite the increase in mortality from regular omicron related to spike protein transfer, the investigators strangely conclude the ability to kill the mice “resides elsewhere in the virus.”

Along with these issues there is another problem in applying this work to human COVID-19 disease — there was no attempt to determine if vaccination protects from this new virus (which it should). This is crucial since almost the entire human population now has immunity to original spike protein from either vaccination or infection. 

Any biomedical research is a balance between risk and benefit. This research should not have been conducted in this manner no matter how small the risk because it has no value in understanding human COVID-19 infection. As with most COVID work, it was published as a preprint without any peer review outlining its limitations.

Dr. Ronald Corley

The most disturbing part of this was that the director of the laboratory, Ronald B. Corley, blamed the media for sensationalizing this work. He said the news media had, “sensationalized the message, they misrepresent the study and its goals in its entirety.” He also said that, “BU did not have to notify NIH or the Federal Government since the study was not funded by NIH” (even though they fund the lab where the work was performed). 

Contrary to this claim, any research potentially enhancing human pathogens must be federally reviewed before it is initiated. Dr. Emily Erbelding, director of NIH-NIAID’s division of microbiology and infectious diseases, seemed surprised by the research. She said, “the BU team’s original grant applications did not specify that the scientists wanted to do this precise work. Nor did the group make clear that it was doing experiments that might involve enhancing a pathogen of pandemic potential in the progress reports it provided to NIAID.”

Let’s do everyone in Boston a favor and shut this facility down.

Published by jbakerjrblog

Immunologist, former Army MD, former head of allergy and clinical immunology at University of Michigan, vaccine developer and opinionated guy.

10 thoughts on “I didn’t believe anything about COVID could upset me anymore until I heard about these folks at Boston University…

  1. Can anyone name a single advance in human health derived from gain of function research? Seems like a way to get funding, postdocs, and to build professional reputation, at the expense of vastly increased risk to everyone else on the planet.


  2. Jim, Your passion about the Boston gain of function research is well founded and on target, as usual. Did we not learn the hazards of this kind of research in Wuhan? Rod

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jim
    When I read the news the other day I could not believe what happened and that they essentially bragged about what they accomplished!!!!
    How can we as citizens band together to shut that lab down and punish the University for allowing such dangerous research

    Bob DeMattia

    Sent from my iPhone so please excuse any typos


  4. Hi Dr Baker
    Steve stegmaier here, former patient of yours. I agree w your conclusion. I am hoping that you share this blogpost w the NIH.

    I miss your expertise, care and personal touch. I am hoping that you did receive the letter I sent you about 6 to 7 months ago sharing all of that with you.

    Keep up your great work w the blog


    Liked by 1 person

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