Chinese scientists have been experimenting with a mutant coronavirus strain that is completely fatal in ‘humanized’ mice, despite worries that such research may ignite another pandemic.
Scientists in Beijing, who are associated to the Chinese military, cloned a Covid-like virus found in pangolins called GX_P2V and utilized it to infect mice, the Daily Mail reported on Tuesday.
The mice had been ‘humanized’, which means they were modified to express a protein present in humans, with the purpose of determining how the virus might behave in humans.
Every mouse inoculated with the infection died within eight days, which the researchers characterized as ‘surprisingly’ fast.
The researchers were also shocked to discover large amounts of viral load in the mice’s brains and eyes, indicating that the virus, although linked to Covid, multiplies and distributes across the body in a distinct manner.
They cautioned in an unpublished scientific publication that the discovery ‘underscores a spillover danger of GX_P2V into humans’.
Chief Nerd, a popular X user who posts on biomedical issues, remarked on the new study.
“SARS-CoV-2-related pangolin coronavirus GX_P2V(short_3UTR) can cause 100% mortality in human ACE2-transgenic mice, potentially attributable to late-stage brain infection. This underscores a spillover risk of GX_P2V into humans and provides a unique model for understanding the… pic.twitter.com/RQkSe7xQIC
— Chief Nerd (@TheChiefNerd) January 15, 2024
“SARS-CoV-2-related pangolin coronavirus GX_P2V(short_3UTR) can cause 100% mortality in human ACE2-transgenic mice, potentially attributable to late-stage brain infection. This underscores a spillover risk of GX_P2V into humans and provides a unique model for understanding the pathogenic mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2-related viruses,” he noted.
“Compared to the original sequence of GX_P2V(short_3UTR), GX_P2V C7 has two amino acid mutations in the spike protein. Given the close relationship between coronavirus virulence and spike protein mutations (7), it is possible that GX_P2V C7 has undergone a virulence-enhancing mutation,” he continued while citing from the study. “However, it is important to note that our hACE2 mouse model may be relatively unique. The company has not yet published a paper on this hACE2 mouse model, but our results suggest that hACE2 may be highly expressed in the mouse brain.”
Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease specialist from University College London, posted 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…” he remarked.
Professor Richard Ebright, a chemist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, told DailyMail.com that he completely agrees with Professor Balloux’s judgment.
“The preprint does not specify the biosafety level and biosafety precautions used for the research,” he commented.
“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,” he added.
Conservative commentator Benny Johnson put it succinctly: “Yeah, maybe we should stop creating manmade viruses in Chinese labs.”
Yeah, maybe we should stop creating manmade viruses in Chinese labs pic.twitter.com/bi4ptWK3gN
— Benny Johnson (@bennyjohnson) January 16, 2024
According to a research conducted by the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, the virus was detected in 2017 before the Covid epidemic.
It was identified in Malaysia in pangolins, scaly animals that are known coronavirus carriers and were widely thought to be the intermediary host that transmitted Covid from bats to people.
The researchers cloned the virus and kept many copies in the Beijing lab, where it continued to develop.
It is unknown when the recently discovered research was done. However, the researchers speculated that the virus may have evolved a ‘virulence-enhancing mutation’ during storage, making it more lethal.
For the latest study, eight mice were infected with the virus, eight with an inactivated virus, and eight served as a control group.
All mice inoculated with the virus perished. They died after seven to eight days of being infected.
Symptoms included absolutely white eyes, fast weight loss, and exhaustion.
Researchers discovered ‘significant levels’ of the virus in the rats’ brains, lungs, nostrils, eyes, and windpipes.
By day six, the viral load had ‘significantly diminished’ in the lungs, but the animals’ brains had shrunk, with ‘exceptionally high’ virus levels in them.
The findings indicate that the virus attacks the respiratory system before migrating to the brain, in contrast to Covid, which causes lower lung infections and pneumonia in extreme instances. However, Covid has been detected in the brain tissue of very ill people.
“Severe brain infection during the later stages of infection may be the key cause of death in these mice,” the researchers said.
“This is the first report showing that a SARS-CoV-2-related pangolin coronavirus can cause 100 percent mortality in hACE2 mice, suggesting a risk for GX_P2V to spill over into humans,” they remarked.
However, in certain experiments, the original strain of Covid killed 100 percent of mice, so the current findings may not be immediately transferable to people.
Dr. Gennadi Glinsky, a former Stanford professor of medicine, said on social media: “This madness must be stopped before [it is] too late.”