How British experiments risked making the Covid pandemic ‘more lethal’


It has been claimed that British scientists carried out experiments that risked creating more dangerous variants during the pandemic.

In trials run by Imperial College London and funded by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), cells were infected with delta and omicron at the same time to see which had a competitive advantage.

Anton van der Merwe, professor of molecular immunology at Oxford University, said such experiments risked combining the two variants to produce something “more lethal” that could have infected the scientists or leaked from the laboratory.

“Coronaviruses such as Sars-CoV-2 are known to ‘evolve’ by sharing genetic material when two different viruses infect the same cell,” he said.

“This makes it much more likely that these strains will ‘recombine’ and create a more dangerous variant, which could infect those running the experiments, who could then spread it to the community.”

Experiments ‘in line with strict regulations’

Professor van der Merwe said that using delta and omicron was particularly risky because they were from different lineages and had more differences than variants closest to the original Wuhan strain.

Imperial College London defended the experiments, which took place in London, arguing that they were necessary to inform the response to the pandemic. He added that they were carried out under high biosafety standards.

A university spokesperson said: “This government-backed research did not use more pathogenic viruses than those already circulating among the population and will provide crucial information that will support government decision-making on how to manage the pandemic.

“It was carried out in a biosafety level three laboratory in accordance with strict government regulations, and received continued approval from the Health and Safety Executive.”

Since the start of the pandemic, it has been feared that Covid-19 might leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, where researchers were conducting experiments on bat coronaviruses.

In recent decades, smallpox, swine flu, sars and anthrax, as well as foot-and-mouth disease, have escaped through laboratory leaks.

This week a report from King’s College London warned that labs containing dangerous pathogens are on the rise. Three quarters of maximum security facilities are now located in urban areas, increasing the risk of a leak.

‘risky research’

The report’s authors said many countries are conducting “risky research” that could lead to the “accidental or deliberate release of a pandemic pathogen.”

Dr Filippa Lentzos, Co-Director of the Center for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, said: “There has been a global boom in the construction of laboratories handling dangerous pathogens, but this has not been accompanied by enough biosafety and bioprotection. . supervision. “

Professor van der Merwe has previously argued that many scientists were reluctant to consider the possibility of a laboratory leak starting the pandemic for fear of having to scale back their own risky viral experiments.

He found that in a separate experiment in Germany, the scientists carried out tests similar to Imperial’s using the alpha and beta variants in humanized hamsters, ferrets, and mice.

The paper, published in Nature, was led by Professor Lorenz Ulrich, now at the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut, Greifswald. He was co-authored by Christian Dorsten, of the Charité – Medical University of Berlin, who signed a letter in The Lancet in 2020 ruling out the possibility that covid-19 had leaked from a laboratory.

“There are more opportunities for recombination in animal experiments and selection for more dangerous variants because they involve more cells being infected for longer periods,” Professor van der Merwe added.

“Handling animals is also riskier in terms of transmission to the experimenter than handling cells.”

He added: “None of these experiments are helpful in protecting us from Sars-CoV-2.

“If the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic were conclusively shown to have been the result of a laboratory leak, it would obviously strengthen that case for stricter global regulation of experiments with potentially dangerous pathogens.”

UKHSA was contacted for comment but said it had nothing further to add beyond Imperial’s response. The Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut had not responded at the time of publication and the Charité – Medical University of Berlin declined to comment.

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