On October 17 the UK’s the Daily Mail published an alarming article outlining a study conducted at Boston University involving a gain-of-function experiment on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 that resulted in a pathogen so deadly that it boasted an “80% kill rate in mice” and “could spark a lab-generated pandemic.” The story went viral, being picked up by numerous news outlets, including Fox News, with numerous commentators decrying the reputedly dangerous research.

But was this experiment as dangerous as the Daily Mail’s article said?

Shortly after the incendiary article was posted, Boston University’s research news outlet The Brink posted a rebuttal to the tabloid’s claims, calling them “false and inaccurate.”

The study in question, titled “Role of spike in the pathogenic and antigenic behavior of SARS-CoV-2 BA.1 Omicron”, was designed to explore the question of whether or not the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was actually less virulent, and to determine what part of the virus actually dictates its ability to inflict severe disease. To accomplish this, the researchers combined the spike proteins of the Omicron BA.1 variant—chosen for its large number of naturally-occurring mutations that enable the virus’ “remarkable” immunity-evading capabilities— onto the backbone of the original Alpha coronavirus strain.

When compared to the original USAWA1/2020 “Washington” strain—obtained early in the pandemic from a traveler returning from China to Washington State in January 2020—that the chimeric virus, referred to as “Omi-S” in the study, was derived from, the new pathogen spread nearly as quickly through test tube cell cultures as its predecessor (80 percent in 24 hours versus 89 percent for the original), and did not replicate as fast, but proved to be able to produce more than five times the viral load than the naturally-occurring Omicron BA.1 strain.

The experiment then moved to tests on lab mice: while the animals infected with the Omicron strain “displayed little to no signs of clinical illness,” according to the study text, the other two groups did not fare nearly as well, with an 80 percent mortality rate amongst the Omi-S-infected mice and the original Alpha strain killing 100 percent of the exposed test animals.

The study concluded that there appear to be factors other than the mutations seen in Omicron’s spike proteins that contribute to its increased ability to spread, although the spike structures, used to latch onto the cells targeted by the virus, are still the primary factors.

Despite the relatively straightforward experiment presented in the study’s preprint, the Daily Mail article presented select details of the study out of context to make the situation seem far more dire than it actually is, prompting some commentators to label this study as an example of a gain-of-function experiment.

Boston University’s statement refuting the claims made by the Daily Mail pointed out that the study was NOT a gain-of-function experiment, as no functions were introduced or enhanced by the researchers: the study’s purpose was only to swap a trait that the virus already had from one SARS-CoV-2 variant to another, and the resulting artificial virus proved to be notably weaker than the original Alpha strain it was compared to.

“First, this research is not gain-of-function research, meaning it did not amplify the Washington state SARS-CoV-2 virus strain or make it more dangerous,” according to the statement issued by the director of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), Ronald B. Corley. “In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous.”

It is also important to note that although the Omi-S chimera exhibited an 80 percent mortality rate in the infected mice, these mice were specialized lab animals, catalogued as “K18-hACE2”, that are genetically engineered to grow the ACE2 cell receptors that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus latches on to, making them particularly susceptible to COVID-19 infection: an Omi-S infection in a human host would be far less likely to be deadly, especially compared to the danger presented by the original Alpha strain.

But the Daily Mail misrepresented this number, making it appear as though the lab-produced virus was vastly more lethal than its real-world counterpart, with the 80 percent figure being “a statement taken out of context for the purposes of sensationalism,” Corley remarked, “and it totally misrepresents not only the findings, but [also] the purpose of the study.”

The statement released also pointed out that the experiment was not without oversight, with the study’s design having been approved by the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), consisting of both career scientists and local community members, and the Boston Public Health Commission; additionally, the research was conducted in a biosafety level-3 lab, “appropriate for work involving microbes which can cause serious and potentially lethal disease via the inhalation route,” as described by Wikipedia.

“Before anything is done in the NEIDL, it goes through multiple layers of careful safety review and this is done through committees that are part of Boston University and also committees that are outside of, independent of, BU, such as the Boston Public Health Commission,” explains Robert Davey, a BU Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine professor of microbiology. “We get a completely independent look at anything that’s about to be done. Only after all that is approved and double-checked are you then allowed to proceed with the work. And that work only occurs with the oversight of the environmental health and safety group at BU.”

The Daily Mail, long criticized for its “unreliability” and “printing of sensationalist and inaccurate scare stories,” amongst other self-generated scandals, is still hosting the misleading article, although it appears to have been updated on October 23 to include Boston University’s rebuttal.

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  1. Time for libel law suites which harm the pursuit of science and mislead Americans into ongoing conspiracy delusions.

    China and Russia love promoting everything which causes Americans to doubt our system of democracy.

    1. So do we leverage those laws only for the people whose opinions we don’t like or share?

      I’d rather wade through yellow journalism or willful misrepresentations while preserving freedom of speech rather than cheer on the use of an oppressive legal system (that marginalizes those without means) to stifle dissent.

  2. Every year, without fail, the Daily Mail publishes the same sansationist BS article that the UK will suffer a snow apocalypse. They have more in common with a comic than a newspaper and I would be surprised if they actually have any proper, trained journalists on their payroll.


    Despite several awards, “…The Daily Mail has also been criticised for its unreliability, its printing of sensationalist and inaccurate scare stories of science and medical research, and for instances of plagiarism and copyright infringement. In February 2017, editors on the English Wikipedia banned the use of the Daily Mail as a source…”.

  3. Freedom of speech does not include yelling fire in a crowded theater.

    Propaganda must be prosecuted for the common good.

    1. Frankly, that’s an overused and overly simplistic argument that doesn’t really apply with issues as complex as the ones we are dealing with. Who defines/determines what is propaganda?
      Corporate news?
      The academic establishment?
      Your own feelings or biases?

      People are distrustful of the academic / corporate science establishment for a reason – because time and again it has shown itself to be corrupt. Add to that inherent human bias and it’s no wonder that, by some guesses, half of all scientific papers have some sort of issues in research methodology, reproducibility, or just plain fabrication.

      Science is great – but not infallible or immune to bias or influence – we can’t have the establishment dictate what is ‘true’ by decree with the power to silence dissenting voices. That kind of power is always abused. I shudder whenever people advocate for prosecutions “for the common good”

      To tell you the truth I’m shocked that there are people in this community that are so gung-ho for such a thing considering how the subject of UFOs itself has been maligned and marginalized by the very same government/corporate/academic establishment that is being defended here.

      1. So you’re saying that news outlets caught deliberately broadcasting disinformation shouldn’t be held accountable, as is the case here?

        Yes, James’ remark may seem somewhat hyperbolic, but there is a massive difference between society not wanting to deal with the earnest testimony of a of UFO witnesses, and a journalist outright lying just to increase readership–remember it is literally illegal to knowingly cry wolf in both James’ example and the Daily Mail’s case here.

        1. I quote: “The Daily Mail, long criticized for its “unreliability” and “printing of sensationalist and inaccurate scare stories”

          The Daily Mail is a tabloid newspaper whose reputation is commensurate with that designation. Personally, I’m content with accountability in this case consisting of the continued reputational damage (what little there is of it) of the Daily Mail and by extension those that rely on it for science news.

          While it’s quite likely that the Daily Mail intentionally misrepresented the facts for sensationalistic purposes it begs the question – how do we determine this? What about honest errors or misunderstanding in journalism? That’s why people have to use multiple sources for information.

          I just simply don’t get this mad urge to punish – it seems rather like mob hysteria to me and at least from my observation it tends to be a reflection of political leanings in many cases.

          1. While the Daily Mail’s journalistic standards are indeed tabloid-level, they are–along with their presentation of this particular story–taken seriously, as they make no attempt to let their readers know that they don’t take their journalistic integrity as seriously as they should; although you and I know better, their target audience is not so discerning, and definitely don’t deserve to be lied to.

            If this story was run in an outright tabloid like the National Inquirer it wouldn’t have been a problem; this is a publication that is more akin to the New York Post, presenting themselves as real news, despite their low journalistic standards. And they know there is a sizable portion of their audience that takes what they publish as gospel.

            It’s important to keep perspective in this case: I did not write this story simply to pick on the Daily Mail, I did so because I was surprised to find numerous news outlets that took the story seriously and repeated it. While these are also outlets with questionable journalistic ethics, like Fox News and the Epoch Times, the falsehoods in their story spread amongst their audience and across social media.

            I read the exact same source as the authors of the Daily Mail’s article, and I can definitely say that if this was some sort of error or misunderstanding then they aren’t competent enough to be trusted with presenting the news: the text plainly states the circumstances of the 80% death rate, but the article’s authors deliberately left out numerous facts that would have offered a far less sensational story.

            Additionally, the article’s authors made no attempt to contact the researchers for clarification, something that Corley complained about in another article (I’m having trouble finding the link to that), something that should have been done to at least obtain a comment, if not outright clarification.

            Setting the record straight and holding news outlets accountable are not a case of hysteria, nor did I ever say that I was looking to punish them. And this has nothing to do with politics, but instead factual accuracy and journalistic ethics.

  4. Corvinus:
    “Frankly, that’s an overused and overly simplistic argument that doesn’t really apply with issues as complex as the ones we are dealing with. Who defines/determines what is propaganda?
    Corporate news?
    The academic establishment?
    Your own feelings or biases?”

    Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945)
    As Hitler’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Goebbels masterminded the Nazi propaganda machine and executed its murderous agenda.

    I think the mask of Fox news’s “infotainment” is nothing more than a modern 3rd party screwing of the average man.

    1. I’m not sure If I’m being compared to Joseph Goebbels here or perhaps it’s Fox News or maybe even both ? That such a hyperbolic comparison can even be suggested in complete seriousness is a good part of the reason why we live in such a divisive environment. The thing that stuns me is that many people who identify as liberal or left actually believe in their own righteousness as much if not more so than religious conservatives in some cases.
      There is plenty of propaganda to go around from all the corporate news outlets including CNN, MSNBC and so forth – Fox News is not unique.

    2. And just one final topical point. I’d like to remind all of those who are quick to pique at scientific misinformation of the utter disregard for established science in regards to vaccine mandates, naturally acquired immunity and upholding the principle of informed consent (among other failures) – all of which were supported and propagated by corporate media like CNN, MSNBC and other so called MSM outlets.

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