Chinese scientists have been experimenting with a mutant coronavirus strain that is 100 percent lethal in mice — despite concerns such research could spark another pandemic.
Scientists in Beijing — who are linked to the Chinese military — cloned a Covid-like virus found in pangolins, known as GX_P2V, and used it to infect mice.
The mice had been ‘humanized’, meaning they were engineered to express a protein found in people, with the goal being to assess how the virus might react in humans.
Every rodent that was infected with the pathogen died within eight days, which the researchers described as ‘surprisingly’ quick.
The team were also surprised to find high levels of viral load in the mice’s brains and eyes – suggesting the virus, despite being related to Covid, multiplies and spreads through the body in a unique way.
Writing in a scientific paper that has not yet been published, they warned the finding ‘underscores a spillover risk of GX_P2V into humans’.
Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert based at University College London, wrote on Twitter (X): ‘It’s a terrible study, scientifically totally pointless.
‘I can see nothing of vague interest that could be learned from force-infecting a weird breed of humanized mice with a random virus. Conversely, I could see how such stuff might go wrong…’
Professor Richard Ebright, a chemist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, toldhe wholeheartedly agreed with Professor Balloux’s assessment.
He added: ‘The preprint does not specify the biosafety level and biosafety precautions used for the research.
‘The absence of this information raises the concerning possibility that part or all of this research, like the research in Wuhan in 2016-2019 that likely caused the Covid-19 pandemic, recklessly was performed without the minimal biosafety containment and practices essential for research with a potential pandemic pathogens.’
According to the study, carried out by the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, the virus was discovered in 2017 prior to the Covid outbreak.
It was discovered in Malaysia in pangolins – scaly mammals that are known harborers of coronaviruses and were heavily speculated to be the intermediate host that passed Covid from bats to humans.
The researchers cloned the virus and stored multiple copes in the Beijing lab, where it continued to evolve.
It is unclear when the newly surfaced study was conducted. But the researchers said it was possible the virus had undergone a ‘virulence-enhancing mutation’ in storage, which made it more deadly.
For the new research, eight mice were infected with the virus, eight were infected with an inactivated virus and eight were used as a control group.