British scientists conducted experiments that risked creating more dangerous variants during the pandemic, it has been claimed.
In tests conducted 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, a professor of molecular immunology at the University of Oxford, said such experiments risked combining the two variants to produce something “more deadly” that could have infected scientists or leaked from the lab.
“Coronaviruses like Sars-CoV-2 are well known to ‘evolve’ by exchanging genetic material when two separate 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 doing the experiments, who could then spread it in the community.”
Experiments “in accordance with strict regulations”
Professor van der Merwe said the use of delta and omicron was particularly risky because they belonged to different lineages and had more differences than variants closer to the original Wuhan strain.
Imperial College London has defended the experiments, which took place in London, arguing they were needed to inform the response to the pandemic. He added that they were carried out under high biosecurity standards.
A university spokesperson said: ‘This government-backed research did not use more pathogenic viruses than those already circulating in the population and will provide crucial information to support government decision-making. on how to handle the pandemic.
“It was conducted 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, there have been fears that Covid-19 may have leaked 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 with dangerous pathogens are on the rise. Three-quarters of maximum-security facilities are now located in urban settings, increasing the risk of flight.
The report’s authors said many countries are conducting “risky research” that could lead to the “accidental or deliberate release of a pandemic-capable 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 building labs handling dangerous pathogens, but that hasn’t happened. accompanied by sufficient monitoring of biosafety and biosecurity. ”
Professor van der Merwe has previously argued that many scientists are reluctant to consider the possibility of a lab leak triggering the pandemic for fear of having to halt their own risky viral experiments.
He found that in a separate experiment in Germany, scientists performed similar tests to Imperial’s using the alpha and beta variants on hamsters, ferrets and humanized mice.
The paper, published in Nature, was led by Professor Lorenz Ulrich, currently at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Greifswald. It was co-authored by Christian Dorsten, of Charité – Medical University of Berlin, who signed a letter in the Lancet in 2020 ruling out the possibility that Covid-19 could have leaked from a laboratory.
“There are more opportunities for recombination in animal experiments and the selection of more dangerous variants because they involve more cells infected for longer periods of time,” added Professor van der Merwe.
“Handling animals is also riskier in terms of transmission to the experimenter than handling cells.”
He added: “None of these experiments are of any help in protecting us from Sars-CoV-2.
“If it were conclusively proven that the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic was the result of a lab leak, that would obviously strengthen this case for stricter global regulation of experiments with potentially dangerous pathogens.”
The UKHSA was approached for comment, but said it had nothing further to add beyond Imperial’s response. The Friedrich-Loeffler Institute had not responded at the time of publication and the Charité – Medical University of Berlin declined to comment.