Did scientists in China just develop a new COVID virus that is 100% lethal to “humanised” mice?!
Take a look at the viral claims, and find out what the facts really are!
Claim : China Just Developed 100% Lethal COVID Virus!
People are sharing articles with alarming headlines that claim or suggest that scientists in China just developed a new COVID virus that is 100% lethal to “humanised” mice!
As such, some people are claiming on social media that Chinese scientists were creating bioweapons or Disease X through Gain-of-Function experiments:
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Truth : China Did Not Develop New COVID Virus!
Let’s take a look at the study, and find out why scientists in China did not actually developed a new lethal COVID strain!
Fact #1 : Chinese Study Has Not Been Peer-Reviewed
First, I should also point out that the Chinese study, which was conducted by Lai Wei et. al. has not been peer-reviewed – the first step or many in the scientific review process.
Hence, it has not been published in a journal, but in bioRxiv – a preprint server operated by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). You can read the paper in full here.
While that does not mean its findings are wrong, such preprint papers should “not be considered for clinical application, nor relied upon for news reporting as established information“, as per CSHL.
Fact #2 : COVID-19 Means Coronavirus Disease 2019
I should also point out that COVID-19 is short for Coronavirus Disease 2019, and it refers to the disease, not the virus. COVID-19 is not the name of the virus, which is called SARS-CoV-2.
Even though there are many diseases caused by coronaviruses, there is only one disease named under this convention, which is COVID-19, and it is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. So it would be wrong to refer to other coronaviruses, or the diseases that they cause, as COVID.
Fact #3 : Chinese Study Was Done On GX_P2V Virus
The Chinese study did not perform any research on the COVID-19 coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Instead, it was conducted on a mutated variant of GX_P2V, which is a pangolin coronavirus.
As they had never studied this GX_P2V mutant variant, the Chinese scientists decided to clone and test its pathogenicity in hACE2 mice.
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Fact #4 : The GX_P2V Virus Mutated In Cell Culture
Right at the beginning, the study authors pointed out that they did not “create” the GX_P2V virus. Instead, it spontaneously mutated when the original GX/2017 virus was cultured in 2017.
- A coronavirus related to SARS-CoV-2 was identified prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2017. Hence, it was called GX/2017.
- The virus was cultured in 2017, and the isolate was called GX_P2V.
- The GX_P2V virus isolate was found to infect both golden hamsters and hACE2 mice (transgenic mice that express the human ACE2 receptor), although it did not appear to cause disease.
- It was later discovered that the virus mutated while it was cultured into a mutant that had 104 nucleotides deleted at the 3′-UTR site. This mutated variant was named as GX_P2V(short_3UTR).
From what was written in the paper, the Chinese scientists were not conducting Gain-of-Function (GoF) experiments. The GX_P2V coronavirus mutated on its own while being cultured.
The scientists even pointed out in their paper that coronaviruses have a “propensity” to “undergo rapid adaptive mutation in cell culture”. They were merely testing this mutant that was discovered earlier, but they did not test before.
Fact #5 : Type Of hACE2 Mice Used May Affect Results
hACE2 mice are transgenic mice that were developed to express the human ACE2 (Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) receptor. Multiple hACE2 mice models have been created (example), expressing the human ACE2 in different tissues.
The Lai Wei et. al. study used the hACE2 mouse model from Beijing SpePharm Biotechnology Company, which was created using the random integration technology.
As the authors noted, the company has not published any papers on its mouse model, but their results suggest that the human ACE2 may be “highly expressed” in the brain of this particular hACE2 mouse model. If so, that could explain why the infection caused death through brain infection.
The authors also noted that these hACE2 mice had “abnormal physiology”, with “relatively reduced serum triglyceride, cholesterol, and lipase levels”.
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Fact #6 : An Earlier Study Contradicted Their Findings
The study authors pointed out that their report was the “first” to show that a pangolin coronavirus can cause 100% mortality in hACE2 mice. They also pointed out that their results were “inconsistent” with that of the earlier Zhengli Shi et. al. study.
The Zhengli Shi et. al. study (source), which tested the GX_P2V(short_3UTR) mutant variant, found that it caused lung infections without severe disease in two different hACE2 mouse models.
The authors cautioned that there may be differences between their GX_P2V(short_3UTR) mutant variants as they may have mutated further during their respective laboratory cultures.
Again, this does not mean that both teams were conducting Gain-of-Function (GoF) modification of the pangolin coronaviruses. They were testing a variant of the GX_P2V pangolin coronavirus that spontaneously mutated through cell culture adaptation.
But these contradictory findings of the GX_P2V(short_3UTR) mutant means there is more work to be done. For certain, the Lai Wei et. al. study would need to be peer-reviewed, and verified through replication.
In short – more research is needed, and no, Chinese scientists did not just create a bioweapon…
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Dr. Adrian Wong has been writing about tech and science since 1997, even publishing a book with Prentice Hall called Breaking Through The BIOS Barrier (ISBN 978-0131455368) while in medical school.
He continues to devote countless hours every day writing about tech, medicine and science, in his pursuit of facts in a post-truth world.[/su_note]
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