Chinese scientists have engineered a new COVID-19 variant that killed 100% of humanized mice in lab experiments, sparking outrage and calls to stop “this madness.” The mutant strain combines the Delta and Omicron variants and has been developed ostensibly to study disease resistance and transmissibility. However, experts warn this risky research could lead to accidental outbreaks or bioweapons proliferation.
Engineered Strain Kills All Infected Mice
Researchers at the Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens at the Wuhan Institute of Virology bioengineered a COVID strain combining mutations from the Delta and Omicron variants. In experiments on humanized mice with normal immune systems, the virus killed 100% of infected subjects (NY Post, Newsnation).
The scientists stated the goal was to study the virus’ ability to cause disease and spread between organisms with intact immune systems. However, the creation of such a dangerous pathogen in the absence of proper biocontainment safeguards has raised red flags. Dr. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, tweeted “This should not have happened. The work did not need to be done. The work posed biosecurity risks that clearly exceeded potential benefits.”
Global Backlash Over “Frankenvirus” Experiments
The revelation of the mouse experiments has provoked a fierce backlash and demands to halt China’s viral research. An editorial in the New York Post blasted the study as “madness” and dubbed the strain the “Frankenvirus,” while Indian news channel Wionews said “the world does not need Wuhan Virus 2.0.”
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a former member of SAGE, tweeted “This work should not have been conducted without wide international discussion & agreement. Scientists & Governments must learn lessons & prevent these high risk experiments where there is no clear benefit.”
Concerns Over Bioweapons and Lab Leaks
There are rising concerns that engineering lethal COVID variants enables the development of biological weapons. While there is no evidence the Frankenvirus experiments are part of a Chinese bioweapons program, critics point out the Wuhan Institute of Virology has longstanding military ties. China maintains an offensive bioweapons program in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.
There are also renewed worries about accidental lab leaks causing outbreaks, reminiscent of initial COVID-19 theories. The Wuhan Institute of Virology conducted dangerous “gain-of-function” research on coronaviruses prior to the pandemic with poor safety, according to a US intelligence report. While evidence points to a natural spillover event, critics argue engineering super-virulent strains unnecessarily compounds pandemic risks.
Calls for International Limits on Risky Research
In light of the furor over the Frankenvirus experiments, public health experts are urging the international community to impose tighter restrictions on pathogen research.
Dr. Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who served on the WHO team investigating COVID-19 origins, argued this type of viral engineering should not have occurred without broad global consensus and clear benefit, while blasting Chinese secrecy hampering risk assessments.
Sir Jeremy Farrar similarly called for mandatory international oversight, tweeting “Scientists & Governments must learn lessons & prevent these high risk experiments where there is no clear benefit.”
Critics contend risky “gain-of-function” research on pathogens should be restricted to only the most critical public health priorities that cannot be addressed through safer alternatives. Further development of highly lethal strains absent careful regulation and transparency threatens global catastrophe, either through accidental releases or nefarious applications.
In the wake of furious backlash over engineering an ultra-deadly COVID strain, China will likely face intensifying international pressure to halt risky viral experiments absent oversight. However, given authoritarian intransigence and obfuscation to date around the Wuhan Institute of Virology, meaningful Chinese concessions appear unlikely.
Still, the Frankenvirus controversy may spur increased US and global monitoring, regulation, and restrictions on dangerous pathogen engineering. While engineered bugs killing 100% of infected mammals clearly cross ethical lines, simpler policy fixes like mandatory lab transparency and access prove challenging given geopolitical tensions. Absent binding global consensus, civilization remains perched at the precipice of man-made pandemics, whether through folly or malice.
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