The U.S. National Institutes of Health is investigating COVID experiments at Boston University that have sparked a media firestorm, with some news outlets alleging that scientists created a "killer" strain of the coronavirus as part of their research.
Boston University is refuting those news accounts, calling them a "false and inaccurate" interpretation of its research.
"They've sensationalized the message, they misrepresent the study and its goals in its entirety," Ronald Corley, chair of microbiology and director of Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, said in a statement.
Nevertheless, the news has drawn the attention of federal officials.
Dr. Emily Erbelding, director of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told STAT News that the BU researchers didn't specify the direction their research took in their NIH grant application.
The research team also didn't make clear that its experiments might involve potentially enhancing the COVID virus, Erbelding said.
"I think we're going to have conversations over upcoming days," Erbelding told STAT News.
The BU researchers were looking at the spike proteins on both the original COVID virus as well as the newer Omicron variant, to compare their infectiousness. Omicron has proven more infectious than the original strain, but in general causes less severe disease.
The point was to figure out whether the spike protein -- which the virus uses to infect cells -- has anything to do with how severely ill a person might become, Corley said.
As part of their research, the team created a hybrid -- the original COVID virus coupled with the Omicron variant's spike protein.
A preprint report on the research said that "in K18-hACE2 mice, while Omicron causes mild, non-fatal infection, the Omicron S-carrying virus inflicts severe disease with a mortality rate of 80%."
The Daily Mail latched onto that line from the paper's abstract, reporting that the BU lab had "created a new deadly COVID strain with an 80% kill rate." Other outlets picked up the story and ran with it.
"This was a statement taken out of context for the purposes of sensationalism," Corley said, "and it totally misrepresents not only the findings, but [also] the purpose of the study."
Those K18-hACE2 mice are specially bred for COVID experiments, and their death rate does not directly reflect the hybrid virus' risk to humans, Corley explained.
"The animal model that was used was a particular type of mouse that is highly susceptible" to COVID, Corley said. The original COVID strain kills 80% to 100% of this mouse breed, while the Omicron variant causes "very mild disease in these animals."
Because the hybrid killed 80% of the lab mice, researchers concluded that spike protein mutations that allow COVID to evade vaccine-created immunity are not responsible for the severity of disease that the virus causes.
Boston University added the study was conducted in a biosafety-level 3 facility. Researchers had to enter their workspace through a series of interlocked doors, all floors and walls are sealed, and the lab is fitted with sophisticated filtration and decontamination technology.
Further, the research had been reviewed and approved by BU's Institutional Biosafety Committee and the Boston Public Health Commission, the university told CBS News.
Regardless, the NIH -- which is funding the research -- wishes the researchers would have reported their specific intentions, so the agency could have instituted the level of review necessary when scientists are fiddling with a potential "enhanced pathogen of pandemic potential," Erbelding said.
With proper notification, "we could have put a package forward for review by the committee that's convened by HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services], the office of the assistant secretary for preparedness and response. That's what the framework lays out and that's what we would have done," Erbelding told STAT News.
Boston University has more on the controversy.